Remarkable character or pure folly?

If running a marathon can devastate even the vaunted elites, imagine what it can do to mere mortals.

January 24, 2010 19:28
4 minute read.
Remarkable character or pure folly?

marathon 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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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.

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Most 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.


Yes, 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 is capable.

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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