Has anyone ever truly mastered that monster
called the marathon? Not a chance. Even the sleek Kenyans who make
world-class running performances look effortless are often brought to
their knees by the marathon. There is a compelling explanation for
this. Man was simply not designed to run this distance. And so, no
matter how hard he trains, how much he sleeps, how well he eats, how
many supplements he swallows, he can surmount his innate physical
limitations only sporadically.
human beings will never run a marathon and most marathon runners will
never be great marathoners. Even the privileged few, whose genetics
place them in the realm of the elite, rarely run more than three great
marathons in a lifetime of frustrating attempts. This is so, despite
their unlimited access to physiotherapists, massage, anti-gravity
treadmills, altitude chambers, coaches, physiologists and being
unencumbered by a day job.
Why is it that a 21 year old who runs a 2:06 first marathon may
never run that fast again, even if he dedicated his entire life to
shaving off a few precious seconds? Perhaps it is because the Almighty
wants us to remain cognizant of our human frailties. Although one may
occupy a different athletic plane than the rest of mankind, he is
sometimes painfully reminded that he is no more than a pulled hamstring
away from oblivion.
IF THE marathon can devastate even the vaunted elites, imagine
what it can do to mere mortals. Welcome to a Tiberian tale, an epic
story of suffering and heroism, of courage and perseverance, of
disappointment and triumph.
The three dozen marathoners of the Beit Shemesh
Running Club anxiously followed the on-line weather forecast for
January 7, the day of the Tiberias Marathon. For 18 weeks, we had
trained diligently, experienced chronic soreness and suffered the
indignity of being called obsessive compulsives by couch potato
neighbors. We had run 36 km while the rest of humanity slumbered,
endured crowded rides in malodorous minivans, fretted about missed runs
and honed our bodies into fine tuned, middle-aged running machines.
Did all our sacrifice and dedication ultimately hinge on the
arbitrariness of a winter heat wave? It seemed unjust but then again
the marathon was inspired by the death of a runner-messenger more than
two millennia ago, so expectations of fairness hardly seemed
reasonable. None of us considered withdrawing. Too much work had
already been done, too much sweat spilled. All that stood between us
and glory was several hours of herculean effort.
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we knew that prudence directed that we modify our goals. However, we
had spent too much time carefully planning "marathon pace" to change
plans on the fly. We paid lip service to the need to adjust our pace in
deference to the sun, but we knew that once the gun went off, we would
put it all on the line in a do or die attempt at marathon glory.
Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat shot the starting
gun and off we ran. Our exuberance and the sheer joy of being there
obscured the fact that it was hot as hell. We waved proudly to the
photographers and gave emphatic thumbs-up to the Deganya kids.
Everything was going splendidly.
The first ominous sign was the mysterious appearance of a
carnivorous crocodile at 15 km. What the croc was doing there, I have
no idea but presumably, he was equally puzzled by the 1,500 people
whizzing past on this sweltering day.
I breezed through the halfway mark in 1:28, right on schedule
and noted that although the weather was a factor, it was not
unbearable. I swallowed an energy gel, a sticky glob appropriately
named "Gu" and promptly developed a nasty side stitch which I struggled
to run through.
I was heartened to see all the Beit Shemesh runners after the
turnaround shouting out encouragement to me and reveling in every step
of their odyssey. I noticed, however, that everyone had ignored my
pre-race advice to modify their goals and I knew that shortly, the
dazzling smiles of the 20 km mark would be transformed into the painful
grimaces of the 34 km mark.
I hoped to avoid this fate. My training season had been my best
ever and if ever there was a year when I could overcome obstacles, this
was it. The 2:57 marathon pace I was running felt quite comfortable
until the 30 km mark when my hamstring tightened. I commanded it to
relax, but it was in no mood to be dictated to by a despotic maniac who
had just put it through 30 km.
I changed my tone from authoritarian to cajoling and finally to
abject begging but, perhaps sensing weakness, the hamstring became as
brittle as a 90-year-old hip.
I had no choice but to walk until the recalcitrant hamstring
yielded. After 150 meters, it loosened enough to resume running, and I
immediately began cruising again at goal marathon pace. I had lost one
precious minute but if nothing else went wrong, I would still be able
to break the hallowed three hour mark.
NATURALLY, MUCH else went wrong. The unfamiliar muscle cramps
began appearing everywhere. At one point, my feet cramped so badly,
that I felt like I would topple over. My only option was to walk long
enough for the cramps to subside and then run fast enough to make up
for lost time. As I took my enforced walking breaks, I noted that the
carnage around me was incredible. Many accomplished runners were
walking or shuffling with their heads down trying vainly to push
through the interminable rough patch.
I managed to cross the finish line in 3:06, far from my goal
but not catastrophic under the circumstances. I exulted in the
accomplishment of completing another marathon and waited for our many
runners to finish.
The finishing line pictures say it all. The haggard, nothing
left look on the face of every finisher going through the balloon is
eloquent testimony to the remarkable character displayed by every
finisher. From the fastest runner to the slowest, everyone had given
their all. This was my ninth marathon and each one has been a defining
moment in my life, a wake-up call reminding me of what the human spirit
The writer is the founder and coach of the Beit Shemesh
Running Club and the owner of Al Derech Burma, a specialty running and
biking store. He has run the Tiberias Marathon seven straight times,
three times with his wife Sarah.
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