I follow a handful of blogs, not all running–there are cycling, hiking, writing, vegetarian, photography, poetry, and what I can only describe as fringe. One blog I follow is Outsider Reading written by a professor of American Literature and a Walt Whitman aficionado who is also a marathoner. How could I not love that combination? After all, Walt Whitman was even a major influence in Breaking Bad, like when Hank found Leaves of Grass in Walt’s bathroom, or when Gale recited When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer to Walt in the lab.
“That night, still sore from the race, I turned to Andrea and said, ‘You know, I don’t think I’m done with the marathon.’
She laughed, looked at the clock, and declared, ’10:18 p.m. on Monday. That’s the longest it’s taken you yet.’
What can I say? She knows me.
So it comes down to this: I still have too many unanswered questions. I haven’t solved the problem of the marathon.
Perhaps I never will. But I’m ok with that. After all, I study literature not because it is familiar, predictable, or reassuring, but because I find the problems and puzzles it poses compelling. It turns out that I will keep running marathons for the same reason.
And that’s not such a bad use of time.”
Outsider’s post reminded me that I swore I’d never run another marathon after I finished the 1981 Philadelphia Marathon, a promise I kept for twenty years before I gave it a second try. When I crossed the finish line in the 2001 Philly Marathon, I reiterated that I’d never run another. Next month I’ll run my fourteenth.
What is it about the marathon that keeps seducing us runners back, that we keep tormenting and punishing ourselves? How can we beat our bodies into oblivion, yet come back for more time after time?
My theory is that the lure of the marathon is the stretch after mile twenty. That is the period when the twenty miles of hope is behind us, and we enter those six miles of truth. In those final six miles we are alone, even if surrounded by thousands of other runners. We are laid bare with nothing but our bodies, our thoughts and our will. It is the sweat spot of the marathon where we learn who we are and what we are made of. I’ve found no other sensation in life that has gotten me closer to the truth about who I am than those six miles.
The last thing most marathoners think about when they cross the finish line is their next marathon, but that feeling dissipates with time. If someone would have told me in 1981 that I’d be running my fourteenth marathon this year, I would have said they were mad, yet sitting here writing this post there is no doubt I’ll run my fifteenth to celebrate my sixtieth next year.