Wednesday, October 12, 2005

My Running Heroes

I noticed a couple of days ago that my blog had passed its first birthday, because the Chicago marathon was on Sunday and i blogged about running it last year. The winner of the women's race this year was Deena Kastor, who i truly admire. She's a great runner (she also won the Bronze medal in last year's Olympic marathon and she's in a completely different realm than all other American women in the 10000 and marathon). What i really like about her though is that she seems to have a life. Unlike her more famous British counterpart Paula Radcliffe, who might be the greatest marathoner ever, Kastor doesn't have much of the rock star in her. But i sort of get the feeling that after her running career, she's going to be much happier. Kastor likes good food and good wine, and she plans to open a restaurant post-running. I find that combination of intense focus and varied interests to be admirable.

I doubt that anybody has ever pursued distance running as a means to fame. Outside of running circles there are maybe a handful of runners (not counting sprinters like Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson) that people can name. Pheidippides. Roger Bannister. Steve Prefontaine 'cause they made movies about him. Maybe Frank Shorter or Bill Rodgers if you're old enough, or Sebastian Coe or Steve Ovett if you're British and old enough. Maybe Olympic legends like Paavo Nurmi, Emile Zatopek, Abebe Bekele or Joan Benoit (or Zola Budd for the wrong reasons). But for the most part even the best distance runners of today are not household names. How many people know the name of the world record holder in the marathon, or 10000 meters, or 1500 meters, or mile? (Hint: they're all African on the men's side).

For somebody my age it's easy enough to admire the amazing accomplishments of some runners (like Paul Tergat's sub 2:05 marathon or Paula Radcliffe's 2:15), but my running heroes tend to be people who have accomplished amazing things that are on the fringe of the world's competitive elite. Foremost among these runners is Ed Whitlock, a Canadian who, at the age of 69 became the oldest person to run a sub 3-hour marathon, and then became the first person to run sub-3 after the age of 70 (he was almost 73). I can't really explain to a non-runner how impressive this is. You can consider that a 2:59 marathon is an average of about 6'50'" per mile for 26 miles, and then you can go out to your local track under the most favorable conditions and run the fastest mile you can. But you still won't understand, because you won't know the vast, almost unbridgeable difference between a 7.20 mile and a 6.50 mile when you string together 26 of them. And this dude is 74.

Another of my heroes is Pam Reed, the two-time outright winner of the Badwater Ultra. I admire her both because she's an amazing ultra-distance runner, and also because she's the mother of 5 sons (holy crap, it makes me tired just thinking about it). For good measure, she's the director of the Tucson marathon. The Badwater is a race that starts in Death Valley and finishes, 135 miles later, at about 9000 feet up the side of Mt. Whitney. In her first attempt, she beat all comers, men and women, and beat her closest competitor by 5 hours.

The physician/running writer George Sheehan once wrote "Success rests in having the courage and endurance and, above all, the will to become the person you are, however peculiar that may be. Then you will be able to say, I have found my hero and he is me" I'm not quite there yet, peculiar though i might be. I think the secret is in the courage part. Will and endurance you can prove just by getting up every day and training, but you can only prove courage by doing what your body and mind are convinced you can't.

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