In 490 B.C., a Greek soldier named Phidippides was given a tough mission: run 26.2 miles across the Plain of Marathon to the Greek capital of Athens and deliver the news of the Greek army's rout of the Persians. Ever the hard-charger, Phidippides undertook this challenge with gusto, trotting into Athens to the cheers of his countrymen as he announced the Persian defeat. Happy to have delivered such a momentous piece of news--not to mention having just given birth to the idea of the modern marathon--trusty Phidippides did the only sensible thing after such a long run: he collapsed from exhaustion and died.
Runner's high and runner's low
I should have taken the hint. Instead, I laced up my running shoes a few weekends ago and headed to the starting line of the Rock-n-Roll Marathon in San Diego.
To many people, running a marathon is a completely preposterous undertaking. And as I prepared for the race, I had no shortage of people telling me, "I only run when chased" or "I don't even like to drive twenty-six miles." Despite all the naysaying, I finished the marathon, although about twenty minutes slower than I had hoped. But along the way, I discovered a host of reasons why running a marathon really is a preposterous thing to do and why, when I finally stumbled across the finish line, I wanted nothing more than to join trusty Phidippides in that big Parthenon in sky. Here are just a few of those reasons:
Over the course of twenty-six miles, sweaty clothing has ample opportunity to rub up against some very personal places on a runner's body. Most bothersome are the nipples, especially for men. It's not unusual to see men cross the finish line of a marathon with two bloody streaks on their shirts from raw, chafed nipples. Fortunately, modern medical science has helped to solve this problem and most good running stores carry a full line of medicated gels and ointments that help reduce chafing. However, the best product (and the one that prevented this writer's nipples from being turned into hamburger meat) is a little miracle called a NipGuard. Nothing more than a small foam pad covered with medical adhesive, a pair of sporty neon yellow NipGuards kept my nipples free from painful chafing, allowing me instead to concentrate on the searing pain from the chafing under my arms, between my thighs, and a few other unmentionable places.
Every marathoner knows that staying hydrated is absolutely critical on race day. Yet, no matter how hard we try to keep our fluids in perfect balance, we always end up either under- or over-hydrating. Under-hydration can cause muscle cramping and heat exhaustion. Worse, by around Mile 14, a pasty substance with the consistency of thick cottage cheese can form in the mouth, which can cause gagging and make a runner look rabid. In my case, I over-hydrated on race day. At first, this condition was merely a nuisance, causing me to stop and pee ever few miles. But over the long haul, over-hydration upsets the electrolyte balance in the body, causing nausea, dizziness, and….
By Mile 20, most of my normal metabolic functions had shut down, including my ability to construct coherent thoughts. Really, this part of the race was the most fun. I spent ten minutes running next to a woman who I was convinced had killed John Lennon. At the water station at Mile 23, I threatened to ensure the financial ruin of all the volunteers if they didn't get me a sack full of Big Macs (running a marathon also makes you hungry). And, most disturbing, I had convinced myself that Attorney General John Ashcroft would make an excellent bridge partner. I don't even play bridge, but if you had tried to remind me of that at around Mile 24, I would have told you that Big Bird and Cookie Monster were the kingpins in an international drug cartel.
Really, running a marathon is the easy part. The hard part is not being able to walk for the next week. Many of the people I work with are fitness fanatics, so I was looking forward to waltzing into the office Monday morning and bragging about finishing a marathon. My legs were so sore that waltzing was completely out of the question. Instead, I had to constantly beg my coworkers to help me up from my chair. Even the simple act of picking up the phone caused me to moan in agony. My coworkers found this behavior cute for the first few hours, but soon threatened to stick me in the janitor's closet if I didn't quit my whining. I was more than happy to oblige, since it even hurt to whine.
Marathons are quickly becoming the most popular road race in the United States. Nearly every major city hosts at least one marathon per year. The average race attracts over 10,000 runners and bigger marathons, like the one in New York City, boast well over 30,000 participants. If running a marathon causes such prolonged agony for the average runner, why do we keep stepping up to the starting line? I can offer lots of pious platitudes about overcoming insurmountable obstacles, stretching one's limits, living up to one's potential. But those reasons sound a little hollow. Instead, let me offer this: the beer tastes exceptional at the end of the race.