Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The largest playing field of them all

Whenever I go to watch a marathon, I always get a sinking feeling in the bottom of my stomach that I'm going to miss whatever it is that I came to see. The problem with watching a marathon, unlike a football game, baseball game or even a cross country meet, is the sheer size of the playing field. The one I went to see yesterday went to about three different corners of Seoul, and I had a hard enough time just getting across a massive highway to get to the waterfront course.

As I ran the marathon course backwards, I noted the somewhat unsurprising difference between courses in Korea and courses in North America. North American races typically not only shut down streets, but they close them off. This race was going along a waterfront path, which is the equivalent of a two-lane road, but it wasn't even the only ambulatory procession along the Han River.

As the fitter marathoners hustled east, a slow-moving procession of seniors headed west carrying signs. At first I thought it was a union protest and then, seeing the words for 'sex' and 'girl', I thought it was some sort of save-the-prostitutes-campaign a la William Gladstone, but then I remembered that 성 also means saint, so I concluded this was a march for female saints.

Anyway, long trains of cyclists (ie 40-50 people) also unnerved eastbound marathoners around 25 km, but this open course wasn't all bad. Many people out for Sunday morning strolls came by the water stations as they were closing down and helped themselves to the water and Gatorade. For a country that prides itself on an often-vexing formalism, this was the sort of heartwarming Korean communalism that gets Westerners to stay another year.

Yesterday was also the Chicago marathon, which is where my paranoia regarding marathon courses comes from. I remember trying to go from mile 12 to mile 20 of the Chicago marathon, less than 3 miles apart in reality, and emerging after about 75 minutes (it was hot, but not too hot to walk at 25-minute-mile pace) thanks to subway confusion. It really ought not to be so hard.

In many ways, it's better to watch at home on your computer. Unlike watching on the street, where at best you can get someone to note that "dang, that skinny feller sure can run", you can second and third-guess the pros with the people at LetsRun while counting the number of mistakes on the online feed. Yesterday, for example, NBC's commentators were debating who the third-place finisher was. It was either Feyisa Lilesa or Deriba Merga, except that Merga had not only dropped out about a half hour ago, but he is rather distinctive-looking with a retro mustache, and is also one of the 10 best marathoners in the world. It was like a football commentator not knowing Adrian Peterson from his backup.

As much as I've enjoyed the sheer 'wow factor' of being able to watch elite runners in person, it's a bit like only being able to see a football game when the ball is between the 15 and 20 yard-line. In a big city, with good planning, you can see the frontrunners of a marathon a handful of times at most, but you will almost certainly miss the excitement. Consider the blow-for-blow finish to yesterday's Chicago Marathon, a dead sprint for the last mile. If you stood at the 25-mile marker, you would have seen an amazing race, but you actually wouldn't know who won...until you called up your friend sitting on his butt following along on LetsRun.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Great post.

Marathoning is a very difficult spectator sport. Watching one is almost as hard as running one. ;) Well, not really.