Monday, November 02, 2009

November 2, 2009--Rosie the Marathoner

They ran the New York City Marathon yesterday. More than 42,000 participated, and that number was as much the story as who won.

Back in 1979, the first year of the marathon, just 127 competed. Perhaps an even larger story than this incredible increase in the numbers is the remarkable fact that well over 90 percent completed the 26.2 mile course that took runners into all five of the city’s boroughs and over some of our most majestic bridges.

As a former jogger who panted through my daily 3-5 mile schlep, that so many made it from Staten Island, across the Verrazano Bridge, and eventually to Central Park in Manhattan is almost impossible to comprehend. So many running and finishing dwarfs the awareness that this is a very competitive race, an athletic event that attracts all the elite marathoners from around the world and that real cash money prizes as well as prestige are very much at stake.

Instead, during the extensive TV coverage, which not only spans the two hours and ten to twenty minutes it takes the male and female winners to arrive at the finish line but also continues for seemingly hours so that we can follow the progress of the oldest and youngest runners, those who have had quadruple heart bypass surgery, and recent mothers whose husbands were tragically killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is as if the race itself, its official outcomes, are only a vehicle to highlight these inspiring stories.

And then there is another side to the race. A side that reveals a great deal about some the cultural shifts that have occurred in our society during the 30 years since the NYC Marathon began.

The marathon, which used to be both a race and a full test of character, has become for an increasing number just something to add to one’s lifetime wish list along with a sky dive, bungee jump, and dinner at Nobu.

Evidence of this, according to the linked article from the New York Times, is the fact that the average time for finishers by the year has been getting slower and slower. And this is true for the other high-visibility marathons from the legendary Boston Marathon to the one in Berlin. In 1980 in New York the average finishing time for men was 3 hours 32 minutes 17 seconds. Last year it 4:16 for men and the times for women had increased from 4:03:39 in 1980 to 4:43:32 in 2008.

In fact, the one in Berlin has seen so many clamoring to participate—actually more and more who walk the course rather than run it—that they have the so-called “slow police” (leave it to the Germans to come up with police of this kind) who lurk at the back of the pack of participants and pluck out those who are on course to finish in more than 6 hours and 15 minutes.

Slow runners, traditionalists claim, are not racing but simply participating and as a result are not showing respect for the daunting distance that characterizes marathons nor what it takes to truly compete. Others say that by people like me seeing so many “ordinary” people out there in their shorts and tights, including many pushing bellies as well as baby carriages, that they are inspired to get in shape and improve their health. What’s so wrong with that?

Hey, they add, it’s not cheating to run a mile and then walk a mile. Though even the physical fitness or self-esteem crowd can’t find the words to justify those who stop along the way for a bagel much less a full lunch in Brooklyn or Queens as an increasing number have been spotted doing.

And, the defenders of wide participation point out, the NYC Marathon from its inception attracted all sorts of characters. It’s New York after all, and even charming cheaters have traditionally been welcomed. Remember Rosie Ruiz, they remind us, the women’s “winner” in 1979—with winner in quotes because she ran for a few miles, then hopped on the subway in Brooklyn, took the R Train to 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, skulked around waiting for the pack to arrive, and then rejoined to race as the lead runners approached the south end of Central Park and the finish line.

It took some time to figure out what she had done and to disqualify her. Not until she did a version of the same thing the following March at the Boston Marathon. She got nailed there and then retrospectively in New York because while other top finishers collapsed at the end of the race at both places Rosie was as fresh as when she had begun and wasn’t even sweating. Nor had she stopped for a slice of pizza.


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