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

Sat, 10 May 2008 05:24:08 -0400

Bridge to the Unknown


[rerun from May 1995 RW]

The only certainty abut a marathon is that it measures 26 miles, 385 yards. Otherwise no two marathons run the same way. Each new one poses just as big a question as the first: Can I go the distance, and if so, at what pace?

I've quit racing marathons for time. My PR peaked in 1967 and at a pace I couldn't hold now for a single mile. In the 1990s, I even stopped training much for marathons.

Maybe I had no business running them in the company of people who still took them seriously. But I was intent on finding out how little homework was needed to finish a marathon in decent shape.

Half-marathon training runs seemed to be my lower limit. So the eternal question of the marathon became even more imposing -- and intriguing -- with its entire last half looming as the Great Unknown: Can I still do this?

One question-answering mission took me to the Big Sur Marathon, which runs along one of the world's most gorgeous meetings of land and water. Truth is, my morning on the central California coast left only vague recollections of how it all looked. Marathoners -- even slow ones -- don't absorb enough of any race's scenery at the time to recall many of its details later.

Only one clear picture from this course stays with me. It's the Bixby Creek Bridge.

You know the bridge -- maybe not by name, but you've seen it. Bixby has starred in dozens of magazine ads and TV commercials. Its arches span a deep, narrow canyon where the creek exits into the sea.

Early in the 1994 Big Sur Marathon we ran through rain and hail, then up a two-mile hill to the highest -- and windiest -- spot on the course. Hurricane Point slapped our faces with 40-mile-an-hour gusts and sent my cap flying toward Hawaii.

Then the sun came out and the wind eased. The course would run generally downhill from here to the finish. We might have thought the worst was past as classical music from a tuxedo-clad pianist drifted across the Bixby Bridge to greet us.

We were wrong about the hardest part being us. No marathon gets easier later. The halfway point only marks the end of the beginning, and Bixby sits exactly halfway between the Big Sur start and the Carmel finish.

The bridge looks more dramatic in photos than it does from road level. We came upon it suddenly after rounding a corner, couldn't see its graceful arches from this angle, and caught the briefest of glimpses of waves slamming the rocks hundreds of feet below.

This crossing lasted maybe a minute. But it still marked a major turning point in my marathon -- a bridge between the normal into the abnormal, the known into the unknown. The real marathoning started here, with half the distance still ahead and the half I'd trained to run already behind.

I placed my faith in the magic of raceday -- the 3000 runners, the split-shouters, the aid-givers, the music-players, the late-race cheerers -- to carry me twice as far as usual. I wasn't sure this magic would be enough.

You can never be sure. That's what makes the marathon so fearsome and so fascinating.

Then you must wait so long to answer the question, "Do I have what it takes to finish?" The deeper you go into the abnormal and unknown, the more you wonder.

But then you finish, as I did at Big Sur, and you wonder later: How did I do that? Because the answer is so elusive, you return to explore again the far side of the bridge between the usual and the magical.
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