Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Invasion of the Stick People

I cannot say I was always the biggest fan of the Boston Marathon. I've kind of had a love/hate relationship with it for my entire professional life.

It was barely on my radar through high school. I knew about it, but that was as far as it went. In those days, it was the BAA Marathon, and it was a race for amateurs who were (in my humble opinion) crazy enough to run 26 miles from the western suburbs to the Pru for the honor of throwing up the bowl of beef stew they got when they finished.

And that was, literally, my first experience covering the race, too. I was still 19 years old in 1973 when assigned by United Press International (my first professional job) to the bowels of the Prudential Center in Boston, where the post-race triage unit was set up. There, I saw enough digestive distress to turn me off from EATING (let alone running) forever.

And it caused me, for a time, to be as derisive about these runner as possible. I thought the whole thing was overrated. It permeated everything in its wake, including the Red Sox, who had to play early on Patriots Day. To me, that was simply a craven accommodation to a bunch of narcissistic freaks who thought that a 26-mile road race was an excuse to shut the whole city down.

Of course, I can say, now, that a lot of that ill-will was masqueraded envy. I had no idea, when I was 19, what it was like to work feverishly toward setting a difficult goal and then experience the euphoria of achieving it. That is the essence of the Boston Marathon. The story here isn't which African professional flew in here to win it. The story involves the rest of the pack ... the ones who began in this year's second wave. They are the reason this race remains an indelible civic institution.

Covering the Marathon for a wire service makes it difficult to see it from that perspective. You're there to report news ... and the news is who won, who almost won, and any other noteworthy events that take place along the way (and a lot of that involves celebrities who jet into Boston for a day to run). We never got to hang back and talk to the dedicated runners who do this to realize their OWN dreams.

Because in the end, it doesn't matter whether you're Robert "Swing Low, Sweet" Cheruiyot or some anonymous runner with a five-digit bib number. Everyone who runs, and who finishes, gets to cross that line. They all get to hear the cheers along the way. They've all trained, often alone, and often in unforgiving weather conditions. The course offers the same harsh realities to all, whether they're elite runners or plodding through for the first time.

And when it's over, they all have something extremely, wonderfully important in common: They've all conquered the 26.3 mile Boston Marathon course ... Natick and Wellesley, Heartbreak Hill, Cleveland Circle, Kenmore Square, Mass. Ave., Hereford Street, and Copley Square ... and they all deserve an equal amount of credit.

I rode the media bus in 1975 when Bill Rodgers won this race for the first time; and rode it again in 1976, when it was 95 degrees at the starting point in Hopkinton and in the low 60s at the finish line (the notoriously strong New England sea breeze having taken effect). I've seen the toll the elements can take on the runners, particularly when the race -- which begins well inland -- wends its say to the coast and the winds and temperatures can change wildly. I've seen runners so cramped up, and in such intense pain, that you wonder why on earth they put themselves through the ordeal. It just doesn't make any sense.

The answer comes with a very positive aspect of human nature ... and one that, I'm afraid, is lacking in more people with each generation: the desire to challenge ourselves ... to continually raise that bar to (to use another track analogy).

We've lost that desire, I'm afraid. I don't know if it's because we've just had too many things handed to us, or whether technology has made it unnecessary. Maybe we're just not conditioned anymore to accept challenges. You can see it everywhere you go.

Nobody has any desire anymore to embrace the tough challenges. In fact, if anything, we go out of our way to deny they even exist Problems that have left geniuses vexed for generations are now reduced to simplistic, easy solutions by today's pundits.

And I don't want to get overly political here, because there's an equal amount of guilt here. We all do it, whether we're liberal or conservative. We just don't have the patience anymore to sit down and work out complicated solutions. There's no glory in it.

You won't get elected to office if you admit you have no idea, for example, how to stop a recession from getting worse, and that, to you, the only solution is to try different things and see how the markets react to them. You can't do that because nobody wants to hear that there isn't an answer that cannot be found in the same time it used to take Ward Cleaver to solve The Beav's weekly dilemma.

I think if I were to profile my ideal political candidate, he or she would have to be a distance runner. I don't mean someone like Bill Clinton, or George W ... one who dabbled in it for show (though I suspect Bush was probably more dedicated, on the whole, to fitness than The Fantastic Billy C was). I mean someone who understands the commitment to keeping your eye on the prize, and who won't let a couple of setbacks along the way derail them. I mean someone who has trained patiently, in all kinds of elements, and understands that true achievement often comes after an extended period of great pain and frustration.

After all, wasn't it Thomas Edison who said, "genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration?"

We do not have a government of long distance runners today. I don't think we even have a government of sprinters. Or hurdlers. We have a government of hucksters ... car salesmen ... people who will say anything to anyone to close the deal, and worry about the ramifications later.

Of course, all of this is contingent on an electorate who understands the same things, but that's just not the case either. Some of it has to do with the fact that our problems tend to reach such a critical stage (and that's because their complicated nature is counterproductive to them even being address by today's politicians) that people just cry out for easy answers. And there just aren't any.

But a lot of it is simple conditioning. We're not conditioned to think long-term anymore. Everything is "now," whether we're talking about stopping terrorism, losing weight, getting rich, building and maintaining our national infrastructure, curbing recessions, health care ... the focus seems to be to achieve the maximum results with the minimum output.

That is why you see these commercials for Bowflex home gyms, or Jenny Craig ... why there's Judge Judy on TV ... why we ever thought we could eradicate terrorism by killing every last terrorist (which is akin to trying to kill every last cockroach that lives in the walls of your house) ... why, for the longest time, we thought the solution to every social problem was to throw money at it.

We remain married to anything that allows us to get around life's complications ... that reduces the overly complicated to the overly simplistic ... and (and I hate to use this expression because it's become such a cliche) dumbs us down.

People often dismiss sports as being totally artificial and irrelevant ... and the exclusive domain of tremendously self-absorbed athletes who no longer have the slightest thing in common with the rest of us.

And a lot of ways, that is true, especially the major professional ones where even being an elite athlete isn't enough. This is why we have so many instances of cheating, whether it's steroids, growth hormones, blood doping, and the rest.

The last bastion, to me, of old-fashioned American perseverance and tenacity is distance running, because there is absolutely no way to get around anything. If you're going to succeed, you have to work. You have to take risks. You have to protect your body so that it can withstand those risks. And you have to know, going in, that even if you do everything right, things might not go your way ... and you have to prepare to accept whatever comes.

You compete not against Robert Cheruiyot, but against yourself. You answer only to the person on the other side of the mirror, and we all know that person is absolutely the toughest one of all to please.

Congratulations to those who dared, even if they didn't finish. For they have done something that nobody can take away from them ... and they've dedicated themselves to something much bigger, collectively, than they could ever be individually.

A few years ago, on the local sports radio talk station (a refugee for exactly the type of people on whom this entire screed would be totally lost), an angry caller got on there (aren't they all angry??) the day before the race and complained that the "stick people" were going to be clogging up his streets for the next couple of days. His streets. Stick people.

I thought the use of the term "stick people" was as humorous as it was pejorative, and in some of my more caustic moments, I've come to refer to the Boston Marathon as "The Invasion of the Stick People."

But I also know that running a Marathon requires dedication, discipline, a bit of fire in the belly, and a lot of patience and endurance ... all traits that, I'm afraid, we, as a people, could do well to learn a little better.

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