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

Sun, 26 Feb 2006 05:18:45 -0500

Marathon Fever


(continued from RC 610 and 611)

At first I thought that my accidental marathon, Napa Valley 2000, had left me off easily. The post-race pains were no worse or longer-lasting than if I'd trained right, maybe because I'd run so slowly and walked so much.

Normal running resumed soon, probably too soon. Long after the soreness was gone, the tiredness persisted.

My defenses stayed down, so low that they couldn't repel a mysterious illness. Its symptoms were flu-like -- low-grade fever, persistent cough, heavy fatigue -- and they hung on for two full months.

I ran almost nothing for those months, and began to worry that I'd never feel better. Just getting from one end of the day to the other was a "marathon."

My doctor never identified that illness. The best he could do was rule out the worst possibilities.

The long-lasting fever finally cooled. More months passed as I inched back toward normal runs. You appreciate those more after you've lost them for a while, or what you thought might be forever.

After recovering fully, I still avoided making the efforts that racing required. Almost six years passed without a run longer than an hour. Only a few times each year was my pace faster than comfortable.

I still went to races, but now mostly to watch other runners. "Why aren't you running?" they would ask.

Two answers. The first, "I forgot to train," usually drew a laugh. The second, "I like to run too much to race," brought a look of bewilderment, as if I were speaking poorly translated Swahili.

Here's a clearer translation: Daily runs mean much more to me now than races, if only because the normal days outnumber the racedays by more than a hundred to one. If racing jeopardizes my normal running, as it did after Napa 2000, the race is not worth the risk.

Besides, I've raced enough for anyone's lifetime, more than 700 times. What's left to prove?

Well, there is one thing. Is it to prove that the training program prescribed to my Marathon Teams and in my Marathon Training book is good enough to use myself? No, I already know that from many earlier go-rounds.

The answer that comes closer to the truth than any other is that I don't want my latest marathon to stand forever as the last. Before too much more time passes, I'd like to correct my Napa Valley 2000 mistakes -- in training, planning, pacing, recovery.

Maybe I won't go out in style (when have the late miles of my marathons ever been less than a struggle?) But I want to walk away proud of having done this one as right as I know how.

If it's a personal-worst time no problem. It would complete the perfect bookends of my marathon career: PR in the first to PW in the last, a mere 39 years and two or more hours apart.

If the next marathon happens to be my last, or even if I've already done the last one, I can shrug and say I've had my turn. Now I can focus fully on giving that chance to others. I can live the lines from my first column in Marathon & Beyond, which read:

Those of us who stand and watch also participate. If you've gone to a marathon to support the runners you knew, to wait for their faces to appear in the crowd, then you've been involved too.

Standing and watching can stir your emotions in same ways that running does, and sometimes more. In your own races you have at least the illusion of control. But you can't run your friends' miles, which is why you worry for them.

Each year I watch students of mine graduate into marathons. At their marathon start I feel more nervous for them than I'd felt before all of my own marathons combined. At their finish I shed more tears for them than for all of my races.

We who stand and watch also serve. We cheer the runners who do what we once did, giving them support that we once received.

We show the passers-by that what they do does not go unnoticed or unappreciated. No one knows them better than one who has passed this way before.

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