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

Wed, 5 Jul 2000 08:46:38 -0400

How Many Marathons?

This is much better entertainment than hiding in the hotel room, watching TV. Instead each of us sat alone in the lobby, watching people pass by. The gentleman who looked to be in his mid-60s finally said to me, "Are you here to run the race?"

Explaining that I was in Penticton, British Columbia, for the Peach City Marathon but not to run was too complicated. The simple answer was, "No, I'm here to help."

We sorted out who each was and realized we both knew the other's name. His is Wally Herman, whose true age is 74. He's a Canadian, from Ottawa, who lives nearly half the year in Florida.

Wally was the first of a group now numbering more than 120. He's the charter member of the 50 states marathon club (plus all Canadian provinces in his case).

"I missed by one hour of being first to run a marathon on all the continents," he said. "Rex Wilson beat me by that much in the first Antarctica race."

Knowing his lifetime count had to be high, since he'd already said it grew by an average of two a month, I asked how many marathons he had run. The number means so much to him that he spoke each number slowly and separately: "Five... six... one."

I'll never grow up to be a Wally Herman. But I feel more excited about growing older for having met him.

EVEN A Wally Herman can't run two marathons at once, 40 miles apart. I watched his race start in Penticton yesterday, then drove to the airport in Kelowna -- passing another marathon, Hot Sands, as it started an hour later.

It's hard enough to compete with races in Olympia, Washington, and Red Deer, Alberta, on this weekend, though these races are in a neighboring state and province. It's hard to compete with Vancouver, two weeks earlier.

Penticton and Kelowna occupy the same Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, and their marathons run the same day. The story of why two marathons knock heads like this is long and not entirely pleasant, and their competition can't help either of them.

The conflict there has wider implications. It might signal a continent-wide marathon glut such as the one that occurred about 20 years ago.

At the peak of the earlier boom the number of races peaked at more than 350 in the U.S. and Canada. A natural-selection process quickly set in as runners, directors and sponsors made their choices. Within a few years the number of marathons shrunk by almost half.

This year the marathon count has climbed back above 300. You must again wonder if we have enough marathoners to support that many races.


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