An effusive acquaintance of mine once said, "Anyone can run a marathon. All it takes is single-minded determination." Those of us who are training for the New York City Marathon know that unlike, say, cynicism, singled minded determination isn't that easy to come by.
At the very least, it takes a borderline obsessive-compulsive personality punctuated with masochistic tendencies to run up to 50 miles a week for 18 weeks, persevering through August heat waves, excruciating blisters, and the unrelenting ennui of it all. Don't let those maniacal athletes fool you. With the exception of the ever elusive sensation referred to as "runner's high" - the unexpected euphoria related to the secretion of endorphins during extensive exercise - running is just plain boring.
Weight loss and fitness are the obvious reasons that marathon runners endure these insidious byproducts. But there are also other, less discernable explanations. For instance, the first person to run the exalted distance was a Greek messenger named Pheidippides. According to legend, in 290 B.C. Pheidippides ran 24 miles, from Marathon to Athens, to report that the Athenian army had defeated the Persians. Apparently, after uttering "Rejoice. We Conquer!" he collapsed and died. In 1896, to commemorate the illustrious moment of Greek history, the organizers of the first modern-day Olympics included a 24-mile race from Marathon to Athens.
Initially, marathons ranged in length between 24 and 25 miles, depending on the course. It wasn't until the early part of the 20th century, when the Queen of England reconfigured a route so she could watch the starting line from Windsor Castle, when 26.2 miles became the official distance of a marathon.
While not as extensive, the New York City Marathon's history is almost as storied. In 1970, 55 runners finished the first annual New York City marathon, a 26.2-mile race that took place entirely in Central Park. According to the New York Road Runners web site, the pioneers were rewarded with recycled bowling trophies. In 1976, the course was freed from the confines - albeit hallowed, verdant confines - of Central Park, and 2,088 racers dashed through the streets of all five boroughs. Today, the race attracts 30,000 participants who, upon completion, are each rewarded with an individual medal, a silver heat sheet, and a food bag filled with goodies like Power Bars, New York state apples, and Gatorade.
Since I started training for the marathon 17 weeks ago, I've become haunted by obstreperous abstractions like lactate thresholds and glycogen levels. I find myself chatting uncontrollably to anyone who will listen about carbo-loading, speed training and my toenails, which have turned a disconcerting shade of purplish blue. I'm almost certain I've developed a case of sciatica. After consulting with some veteran runners, I've learned that these ailments are just par for the course, and, more importantly, I've been assured that when I finally cross the finish line, the psychic payoff will be well worth the pain.
"If the race goes according to the way you're training for it, it's almost impossible to describe," explained Ron Roman, a corporate trainer who I recently discovered outside Uptown Bagel in Hoboken. Roman, who was wearing Gatorade-green running shorts and a New York Road Runner's Club tank top (sure signs that he was a fellow trainee), is currently preparing for his eleventh marathon. Over the years, he has run marathons in Boston, South Carolina, California and Chicago, which he finished in two hours and 40 minutes. This year he'll be happy with "anything under three hours."
"The race goes by really quickly - as hard that might seem to imagine," he said. "You enjoy the crowd and the scene. And when you finish a marathon and hit your goal, it stays with you for a long, long time. And you find it really helpful in your overall life. For me, it's very addictive."
Ian Rintel, a member of the Hoboken Harriers, the mile-square city's official running club, recently finished the Hartford Marathon in three hours, 29 minutes and 19 seconds.
"It's hard for a non-runner to understand what it means to run," Rintel explained last week. "I've heard something like less than one percent of the people in the United States will ever even attempt to run a marathon. You're doing something that most of the people you know will never do. And when I run 20 miles in the morning, for the rest of the day I really feel like I've accomplished something."
Matthew Patrick, a Hoboken Harrier who works in the marketing department of Clinique, ran his first marathon two years ago.
"I know a lot of people who don't have the patience to do something like this," Patrick said. "I don't mind getting up early and running in the dark and the cold. But you have to be willing to do it in any kind of crazy weather. If you take days off, and don't follow the training schedule, you lose your confidence."
Unlike, for instance, me, Patrick isn't interested in "just finishing" the race. He hopes to complete this year's New York City Marathon in two hours and 45 minutes. "I want to run fast, do well, and finish competitively," he said. "But I also like the fact that when I'm training I can eat anything in sight."
I, too, enjoy the being able to eat anything in sight. I also enjoy feeling fitter than most of the people I know, including my brother, who played varsity soccer and has completed triathalons. But what will make me really happy is next week, when my effusive, and dare I say indolent, acquaintance asks me, "What did you do on Sunday?" and I can respond with, "I ran 26.2 miles."
The New York City Marathon begins on Sunday, Nov. 4 at 10:50 p.m. The marathon starts on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and ends in Central Park. The marathon will be broadcast live on NBC beginning at 10 a.m. For more information visit the New York Road Runners Club web site at www.nyrrc.org.