Friday, October 4, 2019

The Megas

(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.)

2010. Bob Dolphin defies time. Not by the watch, where finishing a marathon now pushes the cutoff time, but by the calendar. At an age when runners supposedly need more recovery time, when they get hurt easier and get well slower, he still averages 20 marathons a year. And at a time of life when octogenarians spend much of their remaining time reflecting backward, Bob still plans far ahead – to his 500th marathon finish, in 2012 at the race that he helped launch and still co-directs.

Bob and Lenore Dolphin, both past 80, have set a world’s-oldest-directors record that will never be broken. It hasn’t been easy. Both have gone through serious illnesses and kept coming back. Theirs is a marathon catering to people who keep coming back, here and elsewhere, and often.

From the start of their Yakima River Canyon Marathon in Washington state, they’ve surrounded themselves with runners like Bob. Call them the Megamarathoners. To them, how fast they run a marathon means less than how many they’ve run, and where.

They band together in groups like the 50 States Marathon Club and 50 States & D.C. Marathon Group (which share the goal of completing a grand tour of the country), the Marathon Maniacs (which Bob Dolphin joined early and whose lowest qualifying standard is two of these races within 16 days; among the toughest is 52 marathons within 52 weeks) and the 100 Marathon Club of North America (which Bob Dolphin founded, still directs and hosted this year at a reunion in Yakima).

As of this reunion, the 48 runners in attendance had totaled more than 9000 finishes. Jeff Hagen from Yakima had joined this club the hard way. “I have run only 17 marathons but also 97 ultras,” he said that weekend. “My total of race mileage in these events is the equivalent of 357 marathons. Just thinking about it makes me tired.”

I’m not one of these runners, who add more marathons to their total in a month than I do in a decade. But I’m friendly with many of the Megas because we meet so often at every marathon that I attend in a non-running role.

I admire them for what they do and what I never could have managed, physically or logistically. I defend them against critics who can’t understand why the Megas run so often, and often so slowly.

Talking with the Megamarathoners in Yakima reminded me again of one big difference between them and the rest of us. They say little or nothing about training, a subject that obsesses me and maybe you.

I coach a marathon group that trains together for one-third of a year, building mileage steadily toward just two races each year. Training plans fill many a magazine, book and web page, yet the Megas have little use for them. They’ve rendered training almost irrelevant.

This isn’t to say they don’t run at all between races, but the marathon itself is the long run for the next one, and it awards a medal and T-shirt. No buildup of miles is needed when they’re already at full distance and always ready to run it again.

The subspecies Megamarathoner has been good for the sport. To bulk up their totals, the Megas need and even prefer smaller races, such as Yakima, and those in states where marathons are few, such as Delaware and Mississippi. This support insures the survival of many a race that otherwise would lose its field to better-known marathons in bigger cities.

Yakima River Canyon runs within a month of Boston and Los Angeles, and nearer to home, Vancouver and Eugene. Yakima doesn’t try to compete with any of them but stands alone as a pure marathon (no half or shorter distance since those don’t count toward a Megamarathoner’s lifetime total) on a rural course that attracts one of the most experienced fields anywhere. Just 515 runners finished in 2010, but they represented more than 10,000 career finishes – including the 463rd by co-director Bob Dolphin.

I’d spoken at the first Yakima River Canyon Marathon. Now the Dolphins had invited me back for the 10th. Looking around the room at the pre-race dinner, I saw many familiar faces. Twenty-five runners were veterans of every Yakima race, nearly one-tenth of the first year’s total field. This race inspires that kind of loyalty and longevity.

Even more than most runners, the Megamarathoners talk in numbers. Except with them it isn’t so much training mileage and race hours and minutes as it is totals of marathons and states.

I spoke directly to them in Yakima because the 100 Marathoners, 50 Staters and Maniacs made up most of the pre-race dinner crowd: “Runners who aren’t one of you think you’re simply numbers-baggers – that all you care about is adding another marathon and that the swelling total diminishes the meaning of each one. From knowing so many of you, I know better. I know that no matter how many of these races you have run, you still haven’t solved the marathon puzzle. Going this distance still is never easy or certain.”

Later. What I said to the Megamarathoners at the Dolphins’ race I can repeat to anyone who has run this distance more than once: You’re never sure, sitting at dinner the night before or standing at the starting line the next morning, how the race will play out – whether it will go smoothly or badly.

Before a 10K you know you will finish and know within a half-minute or so what your time will be. Before a marathon, you never know what might happen. This isn’t a negative.

The mystery of the marathon, the not knowing how it will turn out, is what keeps you coming back for more – to find out. Each marathon gives a different answer, so in that sense every marathon is like the first no matter how many times you’ve signed up and lined up before.

(Photo: Bob Dolphin, en route to more than 500 marathon finishes.)

[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, Personal Records, Run Gently Run Long, Running With Class, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, The Running Revolution and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]

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