Monday, February 16, 2009

To Test the Limits

When is a marathon not a marathon? Most runners (and very few non-runners) know that the marathon distance is 42.195 kilometres, or 26 miles, 385 yards. No farther, no shorter (unless you count Frank Shorter, who won the marathon gold medal at the 1972 Olympics). The distance was standardized by the IAAF in 1921 (not at the 1908 London Olympics, as held by popular belief). But the standard remains: if it isn’t 42k, it isn’t a marathon. Don’t listen to your neighbour who boasted to you that he did a 5k “marathon” last Sunday. He was short by about 37k. Tell him to go out and finish it.

Which brings us to the Comrades Marathon, a challenging jog through the hilly South African countryside between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. At a distance of 89 kilometres, give or take, it is technically an ultramarathon. The race was founded in 1921 to commemorate South African soldiers killed in the Great War, and as such is probably the oldest ultramarathon in the world. Over 12,000 runners participate every year, making it a very popular event, as well as a very historical one, so if they want to call it a marathon that’s fine by me. Especially since it’s been going on since before anyone really knew how far a marathon was.

Each year the race reverses direction. From Durban to Pietermaritzburg the topography is generally uphill, so it is called the ‘Up” run. The other direction is (by deduction) the “Down” run. Both directions have their challenges, as one can imagine. This year is a Down year, finishing at the Kingsmead Soccer Stadium in Durban.

So I’ve entered the Comrades Marathon for this Down year, May 24, 2009. Even with my past record of endurance sports, a few eyebrows (including my own) have been raised at my plans. I guess that an explanation as to why I would try to run such a distance might prompt me to offer Louis Armstrong’s reply to the jazz question (“if you have to ask, you’ll never know”). And I’m not sure I have a better answer at the moment. For me, discovering the reason I have set this goal is part of the goal itself.

Aside from the airy metaphysical aspects of my running that I have described in various essays below, the fact is that I like to try to challenge myself to go beyond where I should logically be able to go. To me, travelling to Africa and participating in the Comrades Marathon - whether I finish the 89 kilometres smiling or barfing, sprint to the finish or wilt in the first 10k - constitutes an inquiry into how much farther I can go.

A finisher of the notoriously punishing Badwater Ultramarathon once reflected on the inevitable question this way: “We are here,” she said, “to see what is possible”.

Heaven help me if I ever cease to explore what is possible.

Ultra distance-wise, I have a couple of things going:

· Slow running suits me. I am not fast and never will be. I have a feeling if I tried to get fast I would injure myself and come to grief.

· Long distances suit me. I am not prone to blisters, black toenails, shin splints, seized muscles or spasmodic tendons that stretch tight as piano wire and then pop, scattering animals and small children in all directions. In my case, after a certain number of hours, I hurt; later on, I hurt more. That’s about the extent of it.

· I am old (57 on race day). Older runners tend to do better at long distances for reasons that no one really understands. It might be that we are not in such a hurry to get to the finish line. Which is just as well since it is going to take a while to get there.

· I actually enjoy myself while 'racing' slowly. As a side benefit - not an end in itself - I find I do better in a longer event in which I am enjoying myself. An example is last year’s Ironman Canada, at which I was relaxed from beginning to end, had fun the whole day and finished in a personal best time.

Having said this, the sobering fact is that I have never run one step beyond the marathon distance in my life. I might turn out to hate those extra miles, my quads might turn to quivering mush and my feet might be pounded into instruments of torture, but I won’t know till I go there and try it. I think I can do it, but I don’t know, and therein lies the adventure. If I fail, then I will - to borrow from Edison - know one more thing that doesn’t work.

“…he finally got it through my head that the real purpose of running isn't to win a race. It's to test the limits of the human heart.”
Bill Bowerman, in his eulogy to Steve Prefontaine