The other morning a group of us were sweating our way through a brutally hot, long run and, as marathoners do, the general topic was which marathons we were doing in the fall and winter and why we were running them. The reasons why who was running which were the usual: Course, logistics, race goodies, tradition, cost, proximity and 100 other rationalizations for choosing a particular marathon. As we cruised along, one of the newbies asked innocently enough: “Which marathon is the easiest?”
“The easiest?,” the group gasped collectively. “Like, which is the easiest marathon?”
Our group was stunned and needed a minute or two to digest this notion because those two words–“easy” and “marathon”–had never come up in the same sentence before. Nobody quite knew what to say. Easy and marathon just doesn’t compute.
I sure could use some easy just once, but the very idea of running an easy marathon is—to me—incomprehensible. The late Grete Waitz told me when she paced New York City Marathon director Fred Lebow for 5 ½ hours in the 1992 NYCM that it was harder than any of her world records. She was used to 2 ½ hours of marathoning, but to spend an additional three hours on her feet was mind boggling. I don’t know about that, but I’ve paced marathon groups an hour slower than I normally ran and even that was hard.
The distance is so long and the time spent on your feet is just so daunting that nothing about the marathon ever comes easy. If it was, everyone would run one.
Certainly, some marathon courses aren’t as hard as others are (so I understood what the newbie was asking), but as long as the distance remains 26.2 miles, it is a daunting and formidable race.
That’s exactly the point and it’s also why so many of us accept the challenge and put in so many months and miles to get ready for it.
I’ve run somewhere north of 35 marathons. Some I ran well—very well–and some not so great. But even my best ones when I was able to keep it together in the last few miles and finish strongly, were incredibly hard. So were the rotten ones.
At least for me, every marathon has been the ultimate test of mind and body. Nothing else I’ve done has come close to it. Every one has been a struggle between my body that wants to quit and walk and my mind which absolutely won’t allow it. A national-class marathoner once told me for him the marathon was: “Mind over matter. If I don’t mind, it don’t matter.”
He was wise in his own way. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized every single race I have ever run in my life has been hard and involved some type of struggle.
After racing nearly all my life at distances ranging from 400 meters through road and track miles through 5-Ks, half marathons and the marathon, it dawned on me that I have never ever once run a race that I could classify as easy. Never once have I just danced to the finish without the least bit of difficulty. I have never been disappointed to see a single finish line. Nor, have I ever finished a race and wanted to do it all over again five minutes later.
For every race I have ever run (and there have been hundreds), I have pushed myself to whatever limit there was on that particular day. Some races were faster and more successful than others, but every race has taken what effort I could summon on that day.
That’s the harsh beauty of racing. Racing is hard; running is easy. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
As the noted philosopher Steve Prefontaine once said, “To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.”
My particular gift is endurance. And for me, a race is a test of my ability to endure while still getting to the finish as quickly as I can. That’s why I race. I want to test myself against the distance, the course, the conditions, my fellow age groupers and—of course—to test myself against my capabilities. That I can endure time and time again.
The only thing I can’t endure is easy.