Saturday, August 30, 2008

Why Run A Marathon

My apologies to Tim Noakes, author of The Lore of Running. I rewrote and edited this from his introduction to the book because it expressed my feelings so well. Tim Noakes is writing about the Comrades (an Ultra-Marathon) that he has run several times. But I have adapted this to marathons and my experiences.

At the start, there is neither doubt nor fear. The outcome is predetermined. Even when we have spent our last ounce of energy, there will be an arm for support, a shoulder to steady our shaking legs, and someone to carry us away from the finish line.

In Faith then, begins each runner knowing that this is the year. This year he is at his peak and is older, wiser and more experienced. This year at the moment of truth, when once more the pain and discomfort become intolerable and the desire to quit almost irresistible, the runner will fight back with more courage, greater energy, and supreme endurance. This year he will run the course on his own terms, and he will become the hero he was always meant to be.

I know all these things; I know that this is finally to be my year. The first part of the race passes effortlessly; the pace a pleasure. The friendship, the scenery, the weather--all have been perfect. But then, as always I notice the effort for the first time. Quite suddenly I no longer have breath to spare for conversation. My horizon comes down to the few feet of road ahead, and I shorten my stride, looking for maximal efficiency. Now the run begins in earnest.

Soon enough, I pass a group of people standing on the side of the road. They cheer as I pass by. I feel the warmth of our humanity. The distance has by now removed just about all the extra energy from my legs, yet I stretch out my stride knowing full will the waste of energy spent.

Now alone and unaided, I pass into the void beyond. It is here, in the sudden solitude of the quiet lane that for me the marathon begins. No longer do I progress on my own terms; the hopes and confidence stored in training now vanish before the reality. The course that I have held at bay is now running me. I am approaching the line, isolated, uncertain, and caring only for survival.

My legs detect the first signs of an ailing will; begin their own mutiny, their tactics carefully prepared. They inform me that this is enough. Geographically, they argue, the race is two thirds over. Why, they ask, must they continue to run, knowing that from here each step will become ever more painful, ever harder? After all there is always next year. Through the blanket of developing fatigue, I begin to appreciate the logic behind these questions; I begin to feel the attraction of that haven of rest at the side of the road, the bliss of not having to take even one more step.

Around me, I know that each runner is engaged in this same battle. In common suffering, we are alone to find our individual solutions. A glance up the road shows a string of runners, each running alone, each separated by a constant distance from the runner in front and behind. A common thread holds us together, but only reluctantly do we defile the sanctity of space that separates us; the space that is our universe, 20 feet of tarmac and just enough room for our thoughts.

My will power now comes from the volunteers working the aid station. Ever smiling, ever happy, they are pure encouragement, my sole precious link with a world that cares. In his hands he holds a cup of water or a sponge. His presence confirms that it is all worthwhile, that to him and his world, I am the most important runner.

In each race, I have learned, the desire to quit comes but once. It is a coward who once beaten does not return. The continual jarring of the descents and rises has taken its toll on my quadriceps, and every step now sends an ever more painful shock down each thigh. The muscles are in rebellion, depleted of energy; their connective tissues are now coming apart. I want to lie down and die.

You may think that even now I could still walk, that a few minutes of rest would restore the desire to live and would defeat the coward within. But you would be wrong, for the discomfort I feel exceeds my ability to recall or describe it. For me that desire to live does not come from within, not from any universal insights. For coinciding with these darkest moments, I learn from a lone spectator, preached on the embankment that the finish line is in sight. Just a mile or so left to run.

And so it ends. I am reduced to running each step by itself. My eyes see only the road at my feet. I now must obey the runner's rule ("Don't look up"), because I have no choice. I no longer have the energy even to lift my eyes to the horizon. The minutes speed by, but the road seems to stand still. I am straining to deliver full power but sound as controlled as a steam engine at full throttle. I wobble and groan monstrously and begin to hope that something will burst. I run oblivious to the noise and confusion around me as I near the finish line. Then I see the line; on the left a haggard group of runners, and on the right people yelling and cheering.

Later, when a measure of physiological normality has returned and I am secure in the knowledge that the last step has been taken, I know again why it is all necessary, what common bond unites all. Skill, you see is not our requirement, nor has our race anything to do with winning or losing. These are the spoils of other, lesser games that are unable to transport us to places we have been.

Indeed the only requirement, the common bond that links all runners, is the need to look for the mountains in life. We need to take the paths least traveled, to go against the common stream, to search for the unattainable, and finally to accept that we have no option.

So because I have not choice but to follow my fate, sometime between mile one and mile twenty six you will find me in mind, if not in body, somewhere on the road between here and there, secure in the knowledge that this is my year, that this year I shall finally defeat the coward within and so commence the hero's life.

(Thanks Dr Noakes for such a wonderful description, hopefully I haven't missed it up too much.)

No comments: