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The marathon: Life’s enduring lesson

Posted: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 | 12:02 PM

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“All human beings should try to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.” – James Thurber, Humourist

It was that kind of weekend. It had a recurring theme. Most of what I read about watched and experienced had to do with life on the run.

Let’s just call it the marathon effect. In it is reflected that endless and most human of races - that ancient pursuit that continually threatens to tighten its grip on life in the modern age.

First there’s the news hook. Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie broke his own world record in the marathon over the weekend. Running in Berlin, the 35-year-old completed the distance of 26.2 miles in an astounding 2:03:59, becoming the first athlete in history to finish a marathon in less than two hours and four minutes.

Gebrselassie’s feat deserved more

Amazing considering Gebrselassie’s age. In the marathon, it seems, experience works in one’s favour. Still, this lowering of another significant barrier drew little attention in the Canadian press. It was buried somewhere in the sports pages, sandwiched in between the latest training camp saga of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the fourth consecutive win of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

It struck me that Gebrselassie’s wondrous feat deserved something more.

After all, a diminutive African approaching middle age had just erased another boundary that once limited mankind. He averaged less than four and three quarter minutes per mile over the length of the route for goodness sake! It was the pummelling of a record that is virtually unheard of in this day and age. Gebrselassie was a full 27 seconds faster than his own mark of the previous year.

He fostered some hope - maybe fleeting for us mere mortals - that absolutely anything is possible.

That sense of hope is the central theme of the wacky Simon Pegg’s new video on the market, Run Fatboy Run. In the film, which I watched because of my fascination with marathon running, Pegg’s character Dennis Doyle, is trying to reconnect with the pregnant fiancé he ran away from on their wedding day five years earlier.

An out-of-shape, hard-drinking and chain-smoking security guard, Doyle is forced to confront his reputation for not completing anything and in the process, attempts to win back the affections of an estranged son and his mother.

It is totally unrealistic and more than a little bit camp as the protagonist preens and prepares for the fictionalized “River Run,” which is in fact the London Marathon, one of the largest and most popular races of its kind in the world. It’s about the foibles of an ordinary guy who aspires to be the champion of his own life, an ambition he shares with hundreds of thousands of others who run the marathon all over the planet.

Marathons, like life, about staying the course

As the movie reaches its plot point, Dennis Doyle, falls, gets back up and agonizingly reaches the finish line more than 13 hours after he started. He is the last man to cross but arguably the greatest victor because of the odds he overcame along the way. The final scene suggests that Doyle hasn’t quite reached his goal because he’s not back with the girl yet. Still, his chances are better than before he entered the race because she agrees to have dinner with him.

The moral being - life is a long race. The best chance anyone has is to hang in for as long as possible and prove that you can stay the course.

Haruki Murakami is a Japanese author and philosopher. As I was running along Queen Street in Toronto the other day I glanced in the window of the local book store and saw his latest offering called, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir. Naturally, I bought the book because I had heard of Murakami’s work and wondered what a writer of contemporary fiction had to do with distance running.

As it turns out, Murakami has completed several marathons, even an ultra marathon, and compares the loneliness of the act of running with the single-mindedness required to write a novel.

Over the course of his literary career, Murakami has been prolific and written on subjects as varied as Mozart’s The Magic Flute, to a baseball game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese league. He has also produced works reflecting on the gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system as well as translating into Japanese the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In short, Murakami’s collection is voluminous and it has covered an incredible distance over time.

Constant improvement

Now, approaching his 60th birthday, Murakami considers the thread that running marathons have woven through his life and his craft. He’s seen his times get better and then fall back. Still, in everything he does - in writing, running and living - he sees progression.

“I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level.” Murakami theorizes. “But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”

Having read Murakami’s musings and having seen the Simon Pegg movie and then becoming aware of Haile Gebrselassie’s achievement in setting a new marathon record, I understood the road closure on the Gardiner Expressway as I made my way home Sunday. Twelve thousand runners were taking part in races surrounding the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Here were human beings halting the progress of the mighty automobile for a few precious hours.

It was one event in one city. But like similar races all over the country and around the globe it represented so much more.

The marathon is a life lesson that has survived, indeed flourished more than any other. In order to succeed in this world, you have to endure from start to finish.

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