My father had been in Boston over some spring weekend in the late 1970’s for a coaching conference and had spontaneously decided to stay an extra day and run the Boston Marathon as a bandit or a turkey (coincidentally one of his favorite derisive epithets for any rascal or fool, including yours truly), unregistered. I found this out because when I saw him upon his return a few days later, my physically robust father was moving in a gingerly fashion that I didn’t recognize. Every step was cautious, calculated and tender. “What happened to you, Dad?” After telling me what he’d done, I asked, “What place did you come in?” with a candor befitting my 11-year-old naïveté. I was hoping I might find his name in tiny print in the statistics section of the sportspage. I immediately suspected, however, some awkwardness in my question, a notion confirmed by my father’s slight tilt of the head as he inspected me with newly narrowed eyes. “Is this ignorant boy truly my son?” his posture wondered. What was I missing? Why would someone run in a race that they had no chance of winning, especially if the price constituted lingering pain and suffering? This may have been my first introduction to the idea that simply challenging yourself to achieve something difficult can be its own accomplishment. That competition is not always against others but sometimes with oneself. As life continues on, this idea seems singularly more apt.
The 2012 Boston Marathon provided personal challenges beyond its 26.2 miles and daunting Heartbreak Hill. The race on April 16 was run in record setting 89 degree heat that made the American flags themselves hang limp and defeated on their poles (Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, don’t you know.) Whether or not you believe that our globe is gradually warming, the intense spring heat was inescapable. A full 10% of the 22,000 runners, more than four times the average number, sought help in the medical assistance tents, and over 200 of those were sent to area hospitals. More than 4,000 entrants chose to defer their registration to next year, a rare option offered by the Boston Athletic Association because of the extreme temperatures. The men’s winning time of 2:12:40 by Kenya’s (five of the top six finishers in both the men’s and women’s divisions were born in this East African nation!) Wesley Korir was the second slowest in the past 35 years. Despite the severe conditions, and my own broadened understanding of achievement, there were those who were indeed racing to win. The photo finish women’s wheelchair race was a thrill to watch. After battling in the heat for 26 miles, Shirley Reilly of Arizona crossed the finish line one second ahead of five-time consecutive champ Wakako Tsuchida of Japan. For the third year in a row, the women’s footrace was decided with less than a three second difference between first and second place, with Kenya’s Sharon Cherop edging countrywoman Jemima Sumgong by just two seconds at 2:31:50. Does that mean that, in a way, over the course of the marathon, Cherop was 3/100 of one percent faster? Better? More fit? Incredible. Unfortunately it reminds me Jerry Seinfeld’s commentary on second place. “I think I have a problem with that silver medal. Because when you think about it, you win the gold – you feel good, you win the bronze – you think, ‘Well, at least I got something’. But when you win that silver it’s like, ‘Congratulations, you almost won. Of all the losers you came in first of that group. You’re the number one loser.’“ The final truth is that every one of the participants in a marathon, particularly the 2012 Boston Marathon, deserves some admiration. It’s a marathon, for heaven’s sake! You could end up in the hospital!