The Planet Wave—I Find The Marathon’s True Meaning
by Bob "Wish" Wischnia on May 30, 2012
You might find this hard to believe, but I actually have a friend who doesn’t run. Whenever I see him after finishing yet another marathon, invariably the first thing he asks is: “Why do you do those stupid things? Aren’t they hard?”
Well, of course, running a marathon is hard. I’ve run plenty and I’ve never run one that wasn’t hard. I think that’s the point.
But what’s even harder than running a marathon, is not running one. If you don’t believe me, try standing on the sidelines of a marathon that you have pointed toward for several months.
Case in point, I had trained long and hard for my hometown Livestrong Austin Marathon. But due to a stupid, final-week tweak, I couldn’t run the marathon. Fortunately, the injury was minor enough that I was able to run the accompanying half marathon which hardly satisfied my marathon itch.
After finishing the half, I jogged back out onto the marathon course to cheer on the folks who were doing the full Monty. Even though just standing there and watching was tough to swallow, it also gave me a unique perspective.
That is, unique for me.
In a running lifetime of running and writing about marathons, I’ve been to more of these things than I could possibly count. And in all of these races, I was either killing myself to get to the finish line as fast as possible or watching the lead dogs fight it out and then afterward, debriefing the winners in a post-marathon interview.
Either way, I was long gone from the finish line by the time the bulk of the finishers crossed the line and completely missed the real story of what a marathon is about.
But this marathon was different. After watching the leaders pass at 25 miles, I rushed back to the finish line to see friends, family and training partners finish off the 26.2.
Ordinarily, I’m a horrible spectator, but standing there on the finish, long after the elites had showered, eaten and dressed, I witnessed for the first time the amazing display of the emotions, courage and struggles that characterizes any marathon.
First, came one fast, but very disappointed buddy who smacked into the Wall and wobbled to the finish at least 30 minutes slower than normal. Then, came another training friend who had the race of her life and blew kisses to the crowd as she PR’ed by 15 minutes, just ahead of a guy who blistered so badly, he was carrying his shoes. Yet another acquaintance was devastated with his time and when the realization hit that he was nowhere near his BQ, appeared on the verge of tears.
Next to the finish, was my occasional acupuncturist who led the four-hour pace group in a love fest that was more satisfying (she later told me) than in any of the other dozen marathons she has run. Another friend had troubles with a queasy stomach and the tough hills that punctuate the Austin course and though disappointed with her time, found enough energy to high five me on the finish.
But as the times got slower and slower, a fascinating change developed in the finishers. As the times slowed, the sheer pride and uncontrolled ecstasy of finishing became more pronounced. Some of them had nothing left to give—depleted and exhausted—but tried to put on a brave face on their final push to the finish. Once they hit the line, their faces lit up as they knew the long morning was finally over.
Indelibly painted in my mind, is one woman who was clearly trying to break 4:30. Running on fumes, she only had 100 meters to go which must have seemed like 100 miles. Her legs were crushed by the hills, but not her will to finish the damned thing.
She veered to one side of the road and with just a few meters to go, went down in a heap. The medical staff rushed to her aid with a wheelchair, but she waved them off, got up, bounced off a fence and somehow dragged her battered body across the finish, just under 4:30. Only then, did she allow herself to collapse in the wheelchair. A tougher woman I have never seen.
After she finished, I continued on past the finish line where I found a guy lying flat on his back, unable to move. I asked him if he needed any help and he just smiled back at me, totally satisfied with the knowledge that he had just run farther than he ever dreamed possible. His time was the furthest thing from his mind.
Only then, did it strike me: This is what the essence of the marathon truly is.
Our sport attracts highly motivated, Type A, goal setters who are willing to spend several months training for one race. That would be me. I live for that.
For some, the marathon is about PRs, Boston qualifiers, age group places or personal battles. But for most, the true marathon battle is the one we wage with ourselves to get to the finish.
It’s the singular victory we can all be proud of.