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Mile 12

Thinking about why people run marathons

When I was a kid, I used to run everywhere. Down through the woods to Cheryl Pierce’s house, 1/4 mile away. Out the gravel driveway, and across the street to the mailbox to get my Captain Midnight Decoder Buckle with the Glow-In-The-Dark- Adjustable-Belt Guaranteed To Fit Everyone. It was too small, and the secret message was, “Drink Ovaltine.” Phooey. In the Winter, I wore shoes; boots if it was snowy. In the Summer, I ran in bare feet on the gravel, and across the hot asphalt, bubbles popping under my soles.

Later, I used to run for the school bus. I would race out of the house, my jacket half on, notebook and schoolbooks wedged under my left arm, clutching my lunch bag in my left hand and the tri-pack of tenor saxophone, flute and clarinet dangling from my right, banging against my right knee as I ran.

When I went toNavy Basic Trainingat Great Lakes, they issued me a 1903 Springfield Rifle. It weighed 11-1/2 pounds. I carried it with me wherever I went. We ran everywhere. To the chow hall, we ran. To classes, we ran. To the dentist, we ran. If we had to go to sick bay for a cold or some other malady, we ran. To go to the obstacle course at four AM, we ran. Then we ran the obstacle course. The rifles ran with us. We wore ankle-high boots known as “Boondockers.” I swore that when I got out of Boot Camp, I would never run again.

So now I find myself, 42 years later, volunteering at the waterstop on Mile 12 in the Baltimore Marathon. I am surrounded by people who love running. It is a bright sunny day, about 60-couple degrees out, with low humidity. I have no idea what I am doing. I put on a happy face, and watch the activity. Someone is carrying boxes of bananas. I can do that. So I carry bananas and put them on a table. They have to be separated, so I do that. Then I look around, and people are struggling with five-gallon jugs of water. I can do that. So I carry and pour water into the big containers. Then I look around, and some people are filling cups and setting them out on tables. I can do that. So I help fill cups. Pretty soon, the tables are covered with cups of water. It is about eight thirty, and the race has already started.

Someone says there are big sheets of cardboard to set on the cups, and that we should use them to make a second tier. OK, I can do that. But the cardboard is curved, from being stood on edge against a building! Oh my goodness!! How to get it flat, so the cups of water won’t fall off??? The civil engineer in me takes over, and I think about how the rise in bridge bents flattens under traffic loads, and I say, “Turn them over, curved side up, and put the cups in the middle first.” This works like the proverbial magic charm, and I am “in” with the running crowd.

The rest is almost a blur. The first runners came by. They were all men. Young, wiry, almost painfully thin, and even I could tell they were setting a blistering pace. They did not take any water; just ran right by. Clearly, these were the elite competitors, Olympic quality athletes in their prime. They were followed closely by the first women. Here again, young, wiry, almost painfully thin, and moving along very briskly. I thought about whether I could have kept up with them for even one hundred yards, and concluded it would take a lot of training. Then the crowds started flowing past. Most of these were people in good condition, but clearly not in the same class as the first runners. They were still moving fairly quickly, though, and as more and more of them grabbed a cup of water, Gatorade, a banana, or a packet of GU in passing, there was more and more trash tossed aside littering the street. It was obvious that it could become a slipping hazard.

I started picking up cups and banana peels, but soon decided it was more efficient to use a wider tool than my hands. Someone had brought a rake, so I put it to use, dodging between the runners, and trying to stay out of their way as I raked the trash to the curb where I could put it in the strategically placed cans. This went on for about two hours, as crowds and crowds of people went running by. I kept asking myself, “Why DO this, if there is no way you are going to finish in the money?”

Somewhere around the one thousandth runner, or maybe it was the nine-hundredth, it hit me: because, twenty years from now, these people can say to themselves, “In 2005, I ran the Baltimore Marathon. I finished 475th out of 1500 entries. That is my achievement.” They approach running the same way I approach music. It is not a job. It is not a vocation. They do not do it for the money, or the glory, or the fame. They do it for themselves. They train for months -- years, even. They work on their mindset. They focus. They tune their bodies the same way I approach breaking in a new reed. It is a labor of love.

About four hours after the race began, the last runner passed our water stop. She was tired. She was not fast. She was looking at the ground, as if each step was a struggle. Someone from our water stop handed her a paper cup of water, and she took it gratefully. Someone else remarked, “I can walk that fast.” It was true. Any of us could have. But the point is, we DIDN’T. Much as I was happy to see the leaders go streaking past, and much as I felt a connection with the average people, running just to be able to say they ran, most of all I wanted that last person to finish.

I don’t know if she did or not, but I hope so. She showed me courage, and I was humbled.

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