Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Born to Run: A Do-It-Yourself Marathon

by Drew Martin

In the mid 1990s I ran my one and only official marathon, which was the first Czech marathon after Communism. I had tried to sign up for the 10K portion but that was closed and so I ended up entering the full marathon. I had not run or trained in any capacity for at least five years: since I had done a biathlon in Palm Springs, CA on a torn achilles tendon and consequentially damaged it further.

The marathon in Prague was a disaster even though it started off fine: there were probably only a couple hundred people who showed up so I was right up front on the starting line with a few world-class Kenyan runners. The legendary Emil Zatopek (pictured above, in the lead) made a special appearance and wished us good luck.

I ran a fast first 10K with the top female runner who was from Ukraine. Then she took off and left me in the dust. To my surprise, she dropped out ten minutes later. Psychologically, that killed me and physically I was already spent only a quarter way into the race. Some of the other runners were quitting, hopping in taxis and heading back. At one point a spectator, a young American boy in one of the most remote parts of the course, pointed to me from the side of the street and said to his father "Daddy, that man isn't running". He was right. I was moving forward but it had nothing to do with running.

I hobbled on until I eventually "hit the wall" and collapsed. I attempted to flag down an ambulance with the little energy I had left but an old Czech woman stepped off the side of the road as I writhed in pain and she started chewing me out. "Don't stop! Get up and finish!" I was shocked. Czechs are never so brash. Perhaps she did not want me dying in front of her house for bad luck but at the time I simply felt like this woman had seen the worst of Fascism and Communism and was telling me to stick with it. I pictured her shouting at Russian soldiers to get out of her country, in the same tone. For some illogical reason, I popped up and finished with a strong pace. I don't remember the exact time but it was under four hours.

One problem (other than not having run for five years) was that I was wearing a cheap pair of knock-off Kangaroo sneakers (without socks) that had I bought for a couple dollars worth of Czech "crowns" at an outdoor Vietnamese market. They were too small and so tight that I lost six toenails during the run. Actually, I did not lose them...they were glued inside my shoes by my own blood. By the end of the race my feet were quite a sight: my ankles were wrapped in white tape to protect my achilles tendons and my feet were black and blue and bleeding. A group of international sports photographers came over and took pictures of my poor, mangled feet. I limped around barefoot on the cobblestones. The German tourists especially took interest in my condition and nudged each other when they saw me and exclaimed "A marathoner!"

I was living in a northern city at the time so I spent the night prior in Prague with a friend. We had agreed to meet up at a tea room on Wenceslas Square after the race. I arrived early so I slumped down on the ground of the alley in front of the venue and propped myself up against a wall. An old Czech couple walked up to me. The husband asked me what I had done. I told him I just ran the marathon and then he asked me how long that was. I said it was over 42 kilometers and he snapped at me "That's nothing! The Hitlerjunge ran 100 kilometers a day!" He scowled and they walked away. It was a very warped moment and one I have tried to forget. At that time, I had not given much thought to ultramarathons and the elder's comment was far from inspirational. Long distance in high school was a mere 3+ miles (which is barely getting started) and I thought the body simply could not take much more abuse than a marathon. (I hesitated to show the swastika here but this image strikes me as something the old Czech man admired in some way. It is a disturbing illustration that was on the front cover of 1934 Nazi propaganda weekly).Over the years I read more and more about the longer races. This weekend I finished reading a book a friend loaned to me, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. It is a widely read book that considers how endurance running is part of our evolution and how a tribe of Copper Canyon Mexicans still participate in "fun-runs" at distances up to 100 miles. The book is a great read for any level of runner but the problem with it is that it is too convincing. This is an issue with the abstraction of all media. Although the book is inspirational, it does nothing directly for one's conditioning. So while its contents are, for the most part, non-fictional, the way it nestles in one's mind makes it work more like fiction and as a mythological fantasy.

Born to Run seems cobbled together at times...but then again so is Moby Dick to some extent. As with that classic, you get what seems to be a tall tale (although it's true) sandwiched between facts and informational excerpts.

I have pondered a lot and written about how movement precedes art. One paper I wrote in graduate school, which I proposed for a thesis (which was shot down), was about how moving through space, over terrain is directly proportional to our sense of drawing, most obvious in our ability to draw and read maps. So I was pleasantly surprised to see McDougall touch upon the relationship of running and art and creativity in numerous excerpts:

"Know why people run marathons? he told Dr. Bramble. Because running is rooted in our collective imagination, and our imagination is rooted in running. Language, art, science; space shuttles, Starry Night, intravascular; they all had their roots in our ability to run. Running was the superpower that made us human, which means it's a superpower all humans possess."

"Visualization...empathy...abstract thinking and forward projection...isn't that exactly the mental engineering we now use for science, medicine, the creative arts? And like any other fine art, human distance running demands a brain-body connection that no other creature is capable of. But it's a lost art..."
"Her naked delight is unmistakable; it forces a smile to her lips that's so honest and unguarded, you feel she's lost in the grip of artistic inspiration. Maybe she is. Whenever an art form loses its fire, when it gets weakened by intellectual inbreeding and first principles fade into stale tradition, a radical fringe eventually appears to blow it up and rebuild from the rubble. Young Gun ultrarunners were like Lost Generation writers in the '20s, Beat poets in the '50s, and rock musicians in the '60s: they were poor and ignored and free from all expectations and inhibitions. They were body artists, playing with the palette of human endurance."

"Before setting out for their sunset runs, Jenn and Billy would snap a tape of Allen Ginsberg reading "Howl" into their Walkman. When running stopped being as fun as surfing, they had agreed, they'd quit. So to get that same surging glide, that same feeling of being lifted up and swept along, they ran to the rhythm of Beat poetry.
"Miracles! Ecstasies! Gone down the American river!" They'd shout, padding along the water's edge. "New loves! Mad generation! Down on the rocks of Time! "

"That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they'd never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow tree, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave painting, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle-behold, the Running Man."

The Tarahumara are the native Mexicans McDougall keeps returning to in his book and are central to several running events he writes about where their talent is matched with the best ultramarathon runners in the world, such as Scott Jurek (pictured right, on the left). McDougall often makes the connection between love and performance and the root of goodness. Here he refers to the Zatopek I met at the start of my marathon:

"So here's what Coach Vigil was trying to figure out: was Zatopek a great man who happened to run, or a great man because he ran? Vigil couldn't quite put his finger on it, but his gut kept telling him that there was some kind of connection between capacity to love and the capacity to love running. The engineering was certainly the same: both depended on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you got, being patient and forgiving and undemanding. Sex and speed - haven't they been symbiotic for most of our existence, as intertwined as the strands of our DNA? We wouldn't be alive without love; we wouldn't have survived without running; maybe we shouldn't be surprised that getting better at one could make you better at the other."
I had been training two friends for the New York Marathon that came and went this past Sunday. They did fine, 3:45 and 3:48: times they had been expecting. The night prior, I became a little sad, wishing I could run it with them, after guiding them through the longer runs, where we got up to 23 miles together. So I went on Google Maps and designed my own marathon course. I reasoned that if I could not be next to them, at least I could share their aches and pain, real time. The marathon is about 26.25 miles so I made a course that was 26.5 miles, just to be sure I covered the distance. It was a big loop of towns I grew up around and into my past...I would pass the high school where my mother taught Spanish for most of her career, through the town I grew up in and by my parents' house where I was also married, through the town of my father's former laboratory and where I met my wife, by the house where my wife lived when we were dating, by the hospital where all three of my kids were born and then back home, which included a trail in the woods where I love to run. In the absence of 45,000 fellow runners and thousands of cheering spectators, it is important to have some significant course markers.

Inspired by Born to Run and knowing that one of my friends (who I trained) had several in-laws drive up from Delaware to watch him run and that his father had flown over from Holland for the event, I thought I would tell my parents about my pick-up marathon so they could cheer me on and perhaps offer me some water as I detoured around their cul de sac. This news, however, was negatively received and interpreted that I was trying to worry them.

So the next morning, despite the discouragement, I set out at 7am on a very hilly do-it-yourself marathon course with my bundled-up three-year-old son in a jogger. We packed bananas, juices, raisins and other snacks and beverages. I stopped every so often to tuck in my son from the cold, offer him some snacks and just to make sure he was OK. I had envisioned gathering a bunch of runners along the way but we only passed a few women running in the opposite way with their dogs. We did catch up to one guy who ended up running a mile with us. I had my directions with street names scribbled down, grocery-list-style, on a crumpled up piece of paper as my course guide (no GPS or even a map onboard) and, by mistake, I went over two miles off track. In the end we covered 28.5 miles in 3:38...which would probably put me at a sub 3-hour marathon on my own once you subtract the extra couple miles I tacked on, little breaks and the 50+ pounds of kid, jogger and supplies I was pushing.

Though it wasn't the same as being out in the celebrated event and sharing the moment with so many others, it became a much more personal journey, exploring the depths from which endurance springs, sharing the trek with another generation who might also find the beauty and art of it all.