Monday, October 01, 2007

"This is 40k," the voice boomed, with all the gravity of James Earl Jones informing viewers that this, indeed, is CNN. I was, as you may have guessed, at the 40-kilometre marker of today's Toronto Waterfront Marathon. The race was won by the sprightly and slightly John Kelai, who ran the fastest marathon ever run in Canada. Kelai, however, was long gone by this point. I was standing in that eerie twilight zone watching the sort-of-rans go by: men and women in superb but decidedly amateur shape. The best had already passed by and the festively plump middle of the pack was baking somewhere in the Beaches.

One by one, separated by large gaps and gasps, the also-rans staggered, lurched and powered by, the toll of the previous 39 kilometres visible and audible, if not a fully-fledged olfactory experience. I thought back to the 40-kilometre point of my one and only marathon. I was somewhere on the Mississauga Waterfront, noticing my chance and my desire for a sub-3 finish galloping away. The 40-kilometre marker was in front of someone's house, and this family had decided to bring out an impressive stereo system and treat runners-by to the best of ACDC. I remember thinking that this was great if I already hadn't been Thunderstruck.

Here we were, however, on Toronto's barren eastern lakeshore. Runners had passed by the mercurial soil at the old Tent City, passed underneath the mighty Gardiner expressway and now the 40th kilometre began on a barren stretch of Lake Shore Boulevard around Sherbourne. It really couldn't get much worse than this, I thought.

I generally tend to agree with most of my non-running friends and family who can't comprehend just why it is that someone would pay $135 to run 42-some-odd kilometres on pavement. Long-distance running, even at the best of times, is painful. When a marathon goes badly, it gets ugly. It can even turn lethal, as was the case of a woman I saw walking erratically one minute and in the arms of a paramedic 15 minutes later.

The answer, I think, is that absolutely nothing can compare to the ecstasy of success in the marathon, absolutely nothing. Marathons hurt to run and the training is sometimes worse and failure worse still, but a dozen failures are dwarfed by a single success. That's why, like sheep, runners cheerfully line up by the the thousands and the tens of thousands and finish petrified and ruined.

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