Monday, January 7, 2019

The Watching

(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Miles to Go.)

2004. When asked to move my byline to Marathon & Beyond, I quickly agreed, but then privately asked myself: Do I really belong here? Readers were justified in asking the same: How well can he speak to our interests?

Readers were right to wonder: What are his credentials, not as a writer but as a runner? They run marathons and, for some, beyond that distance.

Did I? Well, no, not lately. My life as a marathoner sputtered to a halt in 2000, after four dozen finishes spread over four decades.

I’m not ready to say that the last one has been run, but the passing years have turned a probably-soon into a maybe-someday. My life as an ultrarunner never really got started. I dropped out more often than finished those few races, all run by 1971.

Which returns us to that question: Do I have anything left to say to runners of distances now available to me only in aging logbooks? Yes, I think so.

I justify my new position in M&B by broadening the definition of “beyond.” It doesn’t have to mean only “longer than.” The word can also imply “in addition to.”

“Beyond” can include runs other than marathons and ultras, the shorter training and racing that isn’t devalued by the long. “Beyond” can include what happens after the long racing is finished, when the knowledge of and appreciation for marathoning and ultrarunning don’t end at the final finish line.

Paul Reese, the grandest old man of the roads I know, once bristled when I referred to him as an “ex-Marine.” Colonel Reese corrected me by saying firmly, “There’s no such thing as an ex-Marine.”
He explained that once you’ve had the experience, and Paul had it in three wars from the 1940s to the 1960s, it never leaves you.

Likewise there are no ex-marathoners or ex-ultrarunners. Once you join this club, you never really leave. The experience stays with you, to share with the runners who follow you on these courses.

LIVING THE AFTER-LIFE. The best of runners see the rest of us the least while they are competing at their fastest. Not until their pace slows or their racing stops do the former best truly join the rest of us.

Runners fast and fortunate enough to reach the top get to spend only a few years there. Most of them peak in their late 20s and early 30s. Then where do they go? What do they do with their next 50 or 60 years, after the cheering stops?

Many more little-noticed ex-great runners than celebrated current ones now roam the world. One recent summer I saw three past greats at the Steamboat Marathon in Colorado.

Lisa Rainsberger was there. You might remember her as Lisa Weidenbach who, three times in a row between 1984 and 1992, missed the Olympic marathon team by one place. Her serious racing years are long past, but she does little looking back with regret.

“I’m living in Colorado Springs and training marathoners there,” she said when we talked at Steamboat. “We brought 40 of them to this weekend’s race.”

Lisa pointed to her young daughter, Katie. “This is my medal,” said Lisa, who had a difficult pregnancy with her first child.

“And this is my second,” she added, pointing to her growing belly. “It’s a boy, due this fall.”

At Steamboat a bearded mountain-man stood in the finish chutes, directing traffic. Not one finisher in a hundred knew this was Benji Durden. He made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team-to-nowhere, then ran a 2:09 marathon and reached the first World Championships in 1983.

“I haven’t raced in years,” he said, “but I’m at a race almost every weekend. Last year Amie [his wife] and I handled 46 events.”

One of the runners Benji guided into a chute at Steamboat was running under an assumed name. The announcer read it without commenting on her true identity. I’ll honor her wish for anonymity by not unmasking her here.

One of America’s all-time great marathoners, she ran a 43-minute 10K this day. She seemed to be thinking: I like being out here running and don’t mind doing it slowly. I just don’t want to be singled out for attention.

The ex-stars in this story all appear to be living well in their athletic after-life. They keep running, keep working at races in various capacities – only in a quieter and less visible ways than before.

STANDING WATCH. Those who stand and watch also participate. If you’ve gone to a marathon to support the runners you knew, to wait for their faces to appear in the crowd, then you’ve been involved too. Standing and watching can stir your emotions in same ways that running does, and sometimes more.

In your own races you have at least the illusion of control. But you can’t run your friends’ miles, which is why you worry for them.

Running for yourself, you focus on the little steps right in front you and those just taken. With friends you see how far they’ve come to get to mile zero of a marathon, and you know how getting through 26.2 will change them in ways they don’t yet know.

Each year I watch former students of mine, from running classes at the University of Oregon, graduate into marathons. They took their early steps with me, then passed their final and most vital exam by continuing to run on their own.

At their marathon start I feel more nervous for them than I’d felt before all of my own marathons combined. At their finish I shed more tears for them than for all of my races.

We who stand and watch also serve. We cheer the runners who do what we once did, giving them the support that we once received.

We show the passers-by that what they do does not go unnoticed or unappreciated. No one knows them better than one who has passed this way before.

2019 Update. I needed this reminder now, after a year when my runs had become walks. That doesn’t erase all I’ve ever known about running or done in it. The sharing of experience and enthusiasm don’t stop when the running does. 

(Photo: Jan Seeley served as publisher of M&B from its conception in the mid-1990s to its sad demise in 2015.)

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Running With Class, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]

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