The story of the American marathon is an extended 26.2-mile legacy about barriers — and, perhaps more specifically, breaking them. I should know. I’ve done more than a few marathons at this point. (Six, to be precise. I am counting.)
I’ve counted myself a runner for more than half my life. I ran in high school, devoting a maniacal degree of energy as a overachievement-inclined teenager in Rhode Island to pursuing state titles in the mile, the two mile, the 5K, and any other distance that involved so many laps that officials had to hand out popsicle sticks to competitors to keep track as they ran past.
Hitting the road took on a literal slant as I set out each afternoon to escape hyper-attentive parents, well-intentioned teachers, and an overflowing house of seven. The roads were freedom.
As can be typical for distance runners, I often straddled the tenuous line between pastime and fixation. I trained harder. I grew faster and sometimes, infuriatingly, slower. If one element of my highly inward-looking (introspective or selfish?) teenage life didn’t feel up to par, a chance for redemption always awaited at the starting line of the next race.
I ran in college, honing my speed both through afternoon practice (traditional) and at 4 a.m. sprinting across campus to get papers in before forbidding deadlines of dawn that I’m sure professors never envisioned would be interpreted literally (creative). When injury struck, I’d lament the withering of my quadriceps the way other girls would fret over their expansion. I’d rise at dawn for frost-bitten runs with my beleaguered teammates as others were returning from books or bars.
And I kept running after college, where I find myself now, on the post-grad marathon circuit. I drag myself out of bed at what feels like ungodly hours on Sunday mornings (admittedly the term ungodly sometimes is applied to 9 a.m.), scraping the frost off my shoes to join thousands of Coolmax-clad runners like me chasing each other through Central Park. We spend hours towing ourselves up and down the length of Manhattan, all complicit in the silent but highly competitive phenomenon that is the running scene in New York — a parade of high-fructose energy gels, varsity t-shirts, shrieking heart rate monitors, and expensive sneakers bearing suggestive names like “salvation” and “turbo” (neither of which have fully delivered).
American distance runners today have the exclusive vestiges of any proper subculture. They collect spikes and reflective vests, and they accrue racing bibs and medals the way others do DVDs or business cards. They know their Powerade from their Gatorade and know when to use both. They’ve contemplated imbibing flat Coke during races, and know the shortest path between two points on a street that others would consider an already pretty straight line. They use words like turnover and drafting and kick, which when applied to a race take on significance altogether different from their standard meanings in the English vernacular. Their gods are terrestrial, of Ethiopian or Kenyan or even Moroccan provenance. For a sport that is at its core almost uniquely minimalist, runners have managed to eke out remarkably complex routines and accessories, all in the name of performance. Such rituals provide comforting distraction from the lingering reminder that once the gun goes off, the only thing that’s going to finish the job is your hopefully stalwart set of two legs.
It’s not a little crazy.
But back to barriers. Now I’m training for my seventh marathon, this November in New York City. I’m hoping to shave nine minutes off and dip below the three-hour mark — one of the biggest thresholds in marathon running. As for whether I succeed, only time will tell.
Photo by Alessandro Pautasso