Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 29 Oct 1999 09:18:23 -0400

Sound Check

Paul Kennedy works in a world of sound. Few Canadians would recognize his face if he stared at them in a supermarket checkout line. But they know his disembodied voice from CBC Radio.

Paul puts together documentaries for the national network. One of them dealt with a favorite sport of his, marathon running.

Word came back to him that bootleg tapes of that show were circulating widely. So he released a high-quality tape, in cooperation with Canadian marathoner Peter Fonseca, and now sells it under the title Marathon: Going the Distance (90 minutes, $21.95 U.S., from 1-888/382-4222 or

Paul told how some of the sounds came to be recorded. Not the interviews with some of the biggest names in running, but what you hear in the background.

"Being in the business I am, I'm naturally fascinated by sounds," he said. "So I took my recorder to the New York City Marathon and put some of them on tape."

One sound especially appealed to him. "You can hear it before you see it, even over the shouts of the crowd. This is the aid-station sound as hundreds of feet step on plastic cups."

You might say that Paul is a gardener of sounds. He harvests the best of them and weeds out the noxious variety.

Two deaf children have taught me not to take hearing for granted. All their lives I've listened for them as well as myself.

Running is not a loud sport -- aside from such rarities as the Wellesley stretch of the Boston Marathon or First Avenue in New York City. We don't hear anything approaching the scream of engines at the Indy 500 or the sustained din of a college basketball game.

Running is not a silent sport, though. Its sounds are subtle but well worth a listen. From sound alone you can tell a lot about the people around you.

The level of conversation tells where runners are in their race. Extended discussions of training and goals early on, along with matters unrelated to running, descend into monosyllabic grunts punctuating lengthy silences as the miles pile up.

Running eases normal inhibitions. You hear sounds that usually wouldn't come out in polite company: heavy breathing, coughing followed by spitting, and toots of escaping gas.

Footfalls tell a story about what runners are wearing and how they are feeling. Fast feet, shod in racing flats, whisper along the road. Heavy shoes clomp like Clydesdale hooves. Tired feet scrape the surface.

You can recognize a techie runner without looking. Just listen for the beep-beep of a heart monitor that has reached its upper limit, or the times-up signal on the watch of someone due for a walking break.

Shouts coming from roadside carry well-meaning, if inaccurate, messages. "Lookin' good" and "Almost done" mean you are neither.

Paul Kennedy's favorite, the aid station, brings sounds of people helping. Shouts of "water" (or "waduh" in New York and Boston) are as welcome to hear as the liquid is to drink.


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