As amateur marathon runners for nearly 50 years, we were surprised when our sport made headlines recently for an unusual reason.
Last month, The New Yorker published an article on the Michigan dentist Kip Litton, who digitally fabricated an entire marathon and outsmarted computer timing systems. Then Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Republican candidate for vice president, misstated the finish time of his only marathon. He told an interviewer he had run “a 2-hour-and-50-something” marathon when his actual time was 4:01:25. That was roughly equivalent to a golfer’s claiming a 3 handicap when his typical round is 100.
We have rarely encountered tales like Litton’s and Ryan’s. For true distance runners, to lie about time or distance is to lie to ourselves, to diminish the importance of the many sacrifices we make to reach the starting line. Focus and discipline form the core of a runner’s being; they are what make us put on a reflective vest and run six miles into the sleet at 6 on a dark winter morning.
There are no shortcuts to marathon success. Our race performances are sacred, but it is acceptable to refer to a marathon time up to, say, 3:13:59 as a 3:13, or 3:13 and change.
When we began running marathons, Alan Sillitoe’s novella “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” was the phrase most often used to describe our pastime. How things have changed. The New York City Marathon on Nov. 4 has attracted 48,000 entrants. Yet we marathoners remain in most ways a small tribe. Only 0.5 percent of the United States population has run a marathon.
And we know one another because we have regular tribal gatherings, road races, every weekend in cities and towns across the country. We love to share our experiences. What fun would a race really be without the camaraderie, and excuse-making, after the finish?
“I went out too fast.”
“The big hill came at the wrong time.”
“I could have run 30 seconds faster if I had taken more fluids.”
We’re not saying that runners are fundamentally more honest than other people. But what we do, how we do it and whom we let into our world hold us to a certain unspoken but widely understood and accepted standard.
So we nodded knowingly when Litton’s fellow runners said he hadn’t appeared on road racecourses at certain key points. And when Ryan’s transgression was first raised by Bill Walker, a 63-year-old former Marine Corps officer and registered Republican with a personal-record marathon of 2:29. Walker picked up on Ryan’s vague contention and questioned it on a LetsRun.com message board. From there, a team of Runner’s World editors, tribal chieftains you might say, did the necessary fact-checking.
Nonrunners often imagine that people can cover 26.2 miles only because they have lean, muscled legs and a highly developed cardiovascular system. Nothing could be further from the truth. The runner’s most important organ, by far, is the brain — the source of our dreams, drive and determination. Almost a century ago, the great Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi said: “Mind is everything; muscle, mere pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.”
Amby learned this while a teenager. The son of a Y.M.C.A. director, and skilled at football, basketball and baseball, he reached his limit in those sports in 10th grade when innate speed and power began to trump practice hours. He was, in a few words, too skinny to excel. Distance running offered an outlet and greater rewards for high commitment. Six years later, he won the Boston Marathon.
At different times and in different individuals, the mind of the marathoner ranges widely: from steely toughness, to sparks of creativity, to generosity on a grand scale. Sometimes, it surprises us.
In the first mile of the 1979 Boston Marathon, George fell into step with a Bowdoin College student, Joan Benoit, and they agreed to run together. As the race unfolded, Benoit held second place among the women, the spectators shouting, “Second woman, second woman!” George got caught up in the excitement. As the miles went by, he began to feel that he belonged there with his new friend even though his 44-year-old legs were moving faster than they ever had. Benoit went on to win the marathon, and George achieved a personal record.
In 1984, Benoit won the Olympic marathon trials 17 days after arthroscopic knee surgery. She captured the gold medal in the first women’s Olympic marathon several months later. To induce a relaxed, confident mental state while running on the steamy Los Angeles freeway, Benoit imagined herself home in Maine on one of her favorite coastal byways.
Running teaches all of us that goal-setting, persistence and tackling one mile at a time can lead to unimaginable achievements. Lessons are learned on the road, day by day, from personal feedback and experience.
As Dr. Jeff Brown, a Harvard psychologist and an author of “The Winner’s Brain,” said: “Negotiating a marathon requires many of the same mental characteristics needed in life. You have to control your emotions at times, activate your motivation when you’re down, and develop resiliency in the face of difficult conditions.”
Or as Oprah Winfrey put it after completing the 1994 Marine Corps Marathon in 4:29:20, “Running is the greatest metaphor for life because you get out of it what you put into it.”
As aging marathoners, we know that our slowing times don’t diminish us. Like many of our friends, we run and compete for personal reasons. We have learned to take the measure of ourselves, and not to let others define who we are.
Decades ago, Dr. George Sheehan, the philosopher-king of running, often said, “Success rests in having the courage and endurance and, above all, the will to become the person you were destined to be.”
When we run, we will ourselves to be the best we can be. That is all that matters. Our tribe expects nothing less.
Amby Burfoot, the editor at large of Runner’s World, has a personal best of 2 hours 14 minutes 29 seconds in the marathon. George A. Hirsch, the chairman of New York Road Runners and the former worldwide publisher of Runner’s World, has a best of 2:38.