Remarkable character or pure folly?

marathon 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
marathon 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Has anyone ever truly mastered that monstercalled the marathon? Not a chance. Even the sleek Kenyans who makeworld-class running performances look effortless are often brought totheir knees by the marathon. There is a compelling explanation forthis. Man was simply not designed to run this distance. And so, nomatter how hard he trains, how much he sleeps, how well he eats, howmany supplements he swallows, he can surmount his innate physicallimitations only sporadically.

Mosthuman beings will never run a marathon and most marathon runners willnever be great marathoners. Even the privileged few, whose geneticsplace them in the realm of the elite, rarely run more than three greatmarathons in a lifetime of frustrating attempts. This is so, despitetheir unlimited access to physiotherapists, massage, anti-gravitytreadmills, altitude chambers, coaches, physiologists and beingunencumbered by a day job.

Why is it that a 21 year old who runs a 2:06 first marathon maynever run that fast again, even if he dedicated his entire life toshaving off a few precious seconds? Perhaps it is because the Almightywants us to remain cognizant of our human frailties. Although one mayoccupy a different athletic plane than the rest of mankind, he issometimes painfully reminded that he is no more than a pulled hamstringaway from oblivion.

IF THE marathon can devastate even the vaunted elites, imaginewhat it can do to mere mortals. Welcome to a Tiberian tale, an epicstory of suffering and heroism, of courage and perseverance, ofdisappointment and triumph.

The three dozen marathoners of the Beit ShemeshRunning Club anxiously followed the on-line weather forecast forJanuary 7, the day of the Tiberias Marathon. For 18 weeks, we hadtrained diligently, experienced chronic soreness and suffered theindignity of being called obsessive compulsives by couch potatoneighbors. We had run 36 km while the rest of humanity slumbered,endured crowded rides in malodorous minivans, fretted about missed runsand honed our bodies into fine tuned, middle-aged running machines.

Did all our sacrifice and dedication ultimately hinge on thearbitrariness of a winter heat wave? It seemed unjust but then againthe marathon was inspired by the death of a runner-messenger more thantwo millennia ago, so expectations of fairness hardly seemedreasonable. None of us considered withdrawing. Too much work hadalready been done, too much sweat spilled. All that stood between usand glory was several hours of herculean effort.

Yes,we knew that prudence directed that we modify our goals. However, wehad spent too much time carefully planning "marathon pace" to changeplans on the fly. We paid lip service to the need to adjust our pace indeference to the sun, but we knew that once the gun went off, we wouldput it all on the line in a do or die attempt at marathon glory.

Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat shot the startinggun and off we ran. Our exuberance and the sheer joy of being thereobscured the fact that it was hot as hell. We waved proudly to thephotographers and gave emphatic thumbs-up to the Deganya kids.Everything was going splendidly.

The first ominous sign was the mysterious appearance of acarnivorous crocodile at 15 km. What the croc was doing there, I haveno idea but presumably, he was equally puzzled by the 1,500 peoplewhizzing past on this sweltering day.

I breezed through the halfway mark in 1:28, right on scheduleand noted that although the weather was a factor, it was notunbearable. I swallowed an energy gel, a sticky glob appropriatelynamed "Gu" and promptly developed a nasty side stitch which I struggledto run through.

I was heartened to see all the Beit Shemesh runners after theturnaround shouting out encouragement to me and reveling in every stepof their odyssey. I noticed, however, that everyone had ignored mypre-race advice to modify their goals and I knew that shortly, thedazzling smiles of the 20 km mark would be transformed into the painfulgrimaces of the 34 km mark.

I hoped to avoid this fate. My training season had been my bestever and if ever there was a year when I could overcome obstacles, thiswas it. The 2:57 marathon pace I was running felt quite comfortableuntil the 30 km mark when my hamstring tightened. I commanded it torelax, but it was in no mood to be dictated to by a despotic maniac whohad just put it through 30 km.

I changed my tone from authoritarian to cajoling and finally toabject begging but, perhaps sensing weakness, the hamstring became asbrittle as a 90-year-old hip.

I had no choice but to walk until the recalcitrant hamstringyielded. After 150 meters, it loosened enough to resume running, and Iimmediately began cruising again at goal marathon pace. I had lost oneprecious minute but if nothing else went wrong, I would still be ableto break the hallowed three hour mark.

NATURALLY, MUCH else went wrong. The unfamiliar muscle crampsbegan appearing everywhere. At one point, my feet cramped so badly,that I felt like I would topple over. My only option was to walk longenough for the cramps to subside and then run fast enough to make upfor lost time. As I took my enforced walking breaks, I noted that thecarnage around me was incredible. Many accomplished runners werewalking or shuffling with their heads down trying vainly to pushthrough the interminable rough patch.

I managed to cross the finish line in 3:06, far from my goalbut not catastrophic under the circumstances. I exulted in theaccomplishment of completing another marathon and waited for our manyrunners to finish.

The finishing line pictures say it all. The haggard, nothingleft look on the face of every finisher going through the balloon iseloquent testimony to the remarkable character displayed by everyfinisher. From the fastest runner to the slowest, everyone had giventheir all. This was my ninth marathon and each one has been a definingmoment in my life, a wake-up call reminding me of what the human spiritis capable.

The writer is the founder and coach of the Beit ShemeshRunning Club and the owner of Al Derech Burma, a specialty running andbiking store. He has run the Tiberias Marathon seven straight times,three times with his wife Sarah.