Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Best Marathon in the World

            Marathoners were streaming into the west side of the stadium. They would run a partial lap around the track before ending their 26.2-mile journey at the finish line I’d just crossed.
            I wanted to have one last look. I glanced back down the track at the finish line fifty yards behind me, up at the expectant faces looking down from the stands. The people in those stands in 1912 had watched Jim Thorpe win two Olympic gold medals—later stripped from him for having played two seasons of semi-professional baseball. The decision was controversial and the medals were restored after his death.
            I turned to walk through the archway. On the wall high above, a staff held out the Swedish colors, a yellow cross on a sky-blue background. The flag whipped and snapped in the wind.
            I ambled through the archway, clutching my plastic blanket and finisher’s medal. On this June day the Stockholm Marathon had for me already become history, my 3:26:44 finish converted to mere blips on a computer disk. I was dismayed at what had happened. Once again the awful distance had declared its mystery, sprung its trap.
            My legs hurt.
            I walked a short ways to a soccer field and stopped in front of a blue-eyed blond girl, exemplar of Scandinavian beauty. She looked up and, noticing the tiny American flag printed on the corner of my bib, spoke in perfect idiom:
            “Did you run good?”
            “I did the best I could.”
            “That’s the best!”
            Then she went to work with her knife, reclaiming the timing chip.
            Legs aching, I walked on to a table stacked with T-shirts marked “L.” They might be too big, I thought. Standing there was a square-jawed blond boy—another stereotype.
            “How large are they?”
            “They’re large. Americans are so very large.”
            “Not this one.”
            He had noticed my nationality too. We were a tiny minority. Among 16,000 runners from fifty-four countries, only 180 were Americans. I slung the shirt over my shoulder. Too big or not, it didn’t much matter.
            Among thousands of recovering finishers I found a vacant spot of grass, spread my plastic blanket, and stretched out, although I knew what would happen: I wouldn’t be able to get back up. My legs were twitching and jerking, electricity darting like Saint Elmo’s fire. I lay very still, hoping against a cramp. I’d done the best I could. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
            With a good run I had a chance for a trophy, I’d thought. But today there’d be no trophy. The Ultimate Guide to International Marathons picked this marathon as the best marathon in the world—in arguably the most beautiful city in the world. That brings out world-class runners.
            Now as I lay in the grass, a rock band behind me was in full flight, playing a Bob Seger tune. When the singer came across the words “running against the wind,” I suddenly started sobbing. I stopped quickly, ashamed.
            Why did my run go so badly here on this beautiful, flat course? I wondered. I didn’t want to wreck again. My plan had been to run each 5K segment at 22:30. That would bring me to the finish in 3:09:53—not over-reaching, within my capability, I thought. At the first 5K marker I pushed the button on my Timex and saw frozen there precisely the numbers I wanted—22:30. I had nailed it.
            Despite that, news was not good. Instead of the expected pulse rate—141 beats—my heart monitor had been pushing 150, foretelling trouble. My system was under stress, probably from all the sleep lost in the four days prior to the race. Over three of those days I’d had a total of six hours of sleep. A night of sleep lost on the overnight flight, and subsequent jet lag had blasted my body rhythm.
            The next 5K took forty-six seconds too long, the next one eighty-five seconds, and so on. My time goal slipped away, and there was nothing I could do about it. It became a matter of playing out my string. At the halfway point the darts of electricity started in my feet and legs—hard cramps were coming soon, I knew.
            They started around 30K. Crippling cramps seized my feet, calves and hamstrings in mid-stride so suddenly and so hard I’d nearly smack the pavement. “Relax, take it easy!” I whispered to those muscles. I slowed to a jog.
            I felt lucky to make it to the finish line. Races that go bust are the ones taking the greatest courage. I did the best I could. Marathons are unpredictable.
            My time ranked me twelfth among the 446 finishers in my division, I would learn. I needed my best game, but brought my worst one.
            Now I lay trying to recover, looking up at a Stockholm sky of the purest blue—I understund why the Swedish flag is sky blue. Fleecy clouds were running fast from the south. A nearby oak tree stretched its leaves out. An occasional gull sailed over, eyeing this festival of pain.
            My T-shirt lay wadded on my chest, weighted by the medal. A marathoner walked by, looked down and smiled. He said something but not in English. I just smiled. The kindness of strangers!—it stabs me with sudden joy. I started sobbing again.
            Is it that simple?—a stranger’s smile, a sudden joy. Why do people run marathons?           
            That night after the marathon, French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery offered an answer. Despite exhaustion, I still couldn’t sleep. My legs were twitching and jerking. At 3:00 a.m., daylight peeped through the drapes. I gave up on sleep and pulled out Wind, Sand and Stars, a beautiful book I’d been rereading. On the second page I read I found: “Everything about mankind is paradox.” Then Saint-Exupery linked joy to misery: “...a sudden joy that came when nothing in the world had forewarned us...a joy so thrilling that if it was born of misery we remember even the misery with tenderness.”
            There is ample misery in a marathon. Runners remember it with tenderness, tell stories about it. They treasure that intense moment; it’s part of their truth, like soil is part of a farmer’s truth. But there is also the simple smile of a stranger. They remember that, too, and treasure that, too. I do.
            But lying in the grass now after the race I wasn’t wondering why; I was wondering how to get up. I watched as the fleecy clouds thickened and finally blotted out the blue sky. Day turned gray. The temperature fell; I got cold.
            I managed to gain a sitting position. But when I bent my knee to gather my feet, the calf muscle jerked into a hard knot. I slammed the leg straight and lay back grimancing. Finally it eased. I tried again. And again. Each time cramps shot an arrow through my calf. Getting up took several minutes. But I finally found myself standing again.
            Since I was cold, I put on the T-shirt. Then I wrapped the plastic sheet around my legs and tied it, forming a sarong. That screened the wind.
            After a hot dog and beer I headed toward the hotel, walking down a street called Sturegatan. A surging river of runners still flowed the other way, heading toward the stadium. They’d been running an hour longer than I ran. After such a long time, they had the finish line near now, and nothing could stop them. They would cross the line. Each one knew that, each face told you. What could they gain there? And why were they so willing to suffer so much to reach it? I couldn’t answer. Their long-suffering seemed to embody the whole world’s suffering, and I could only watch in unknowing pity and wonder.
            A strange thing had happened on this street. I walked along it to the pasta supper the night before the race, gazing at the buildings. A gray flag hung from a pole mounted on the wall between two windows on the second story. The flag contained in big letters a single word: “Dallas.” My name, my name waving bravely in the wind! The name of a Swedish company maybe. I didn’t know, but it was the last thing I expected to see. A good omen, I thought.
            The next day on my way to the race I walked along Sturegatan again, watching for the flag, my race talisman. But what I saw was bleak. The wind had snarled the flag in a wad around the pole; my name lay trapped in a crumpled heap. Overnight the lucky omen had turned to a gloomy one. My spirit sank.
            Now, my race over, I walked along that street again. The flag had been right. I watched for it one last time. But I knew what I’d see. The flag was still tangled just like before. It had kept its promise.
            From the mass of passing runners someone suddenly yelled, “Dallas!” I looked over to see Keith Lewis, a Californian I’d met three days earlier. He swerved to the curb to slap hands. “Go man!” I yelled.
            He was about to finish his 100th marathon. No stranger to this city; he had visited here in 1995 when his father won the Nobel Prize for his research in genetics. Keith carries on that work. Their research shows how, at the genetic level, humans are very similar to all other life, even plants, he’d told me.
            The unity of life is perhaps a hopeful notion, if frightening.
            Keith melted back into the stream. Against all conceivable odds, my name had been heralded twice on this singular street in this foreign place—once from a desultory flag, once more from the scientist son of a Nobel Laureate.
            My head was awhirl. I’d seen majesty: Today’s run had taken me through the hunting garden of ancient kings, across the Baltic Sea, by the walls of medieval buildings and across lake water pure enough to drink. And I’d see mystery: A marathoner running nude but for a bra, jock strap and head band, a blood-like smear on his right thigh. And so on.
            These events swirl around the marathon like so much turbulent fog. Despite all the tumult, at its canonical heart the story remains the same: a primal struggle against 26.2 implacable miles. It will always be so.
            I drifted on down Sturegatan, a shabby spectacle in a plastic skirt, amazed at it all.