By Walter Rhein
“So, first marathon?”
The exchange occurs at every event, no matter if there are 50 participants or 10,000. My friend Eric pointed it out to me once and since then I’ve seen the interaction transpire again and again. This particular conversation happens when a man in his forties or fifties swoops up next to a young woman in her late teens. Generally, she’s running along listening to ear buds and wearing sunglasses; eyes focused either on the horizon or the pavement, clearly broadcasting that she’s not interested in striking up a conversation.
The signals are ignored.
“Let me give you some tips, it’s important to keep your shoulders relaxed, especially through the first few miles.”
Sometimes the girl pulls out an ear bud as if startled, confused as to why a stranger is matching her pace. She might even turn and ask a question, “I’m sorry, did you say something?”
“Also, make sure to drink at every aid station,” the guy continues, encouraged to have earned a response. Now he’s running along with his chest puffed out, grinning from ear to ear, ready to give a master’s class on marathon running to a captive audience that neither needs nor wants the lecture.
It’s true that marathons are a very social sport. You can learn more about a person during the hours it takes to run 26.2 miles than you can from living with that same person for a year. It’s possible, in a marathon, to learn things about someone without even saying a word. There is a bond that’s created by shared suffering. You know how miserable the person next to you is because you feel the same pain. Crossing a finish line with a close friend or family member brings about a sense of shared achievement that can truly strengthen a relationship, or create a new one out of nothing.
“Around Mile 20, you’re really going to start to suffer,” the man continues.
Sometimes the girl laughs, sometimes she puts her ear bud back in, sometimes she accelerates. The guy bides his time, and when he’s ready, he unleashes the big guns, “You know at Boston…”
Ah, the inevitable Boston marathon name drop. Now she’s supposed to be impressed, even more impressed by how casually the achievement was brought up. He probably imagines her discussing the race with her friends after, “I was having such a hard time until this very attractive gentleman started giving me race tips, and you know what? He’d run the Boston marathon!”
It’s easy to see how running a marathon would make you nostalgic for a tremendous experience like running Boston. Though I’ve never qualified for Boston, every time I run Grandma’s I become nostalgic for the days when I was young and physically fit enough to run a marathon. But it’s good to keep in mind that chances are high, especially at the big local marathons like Grandma’s or Twin Cities, that other folks around you have also run Boston. Therefore, it’s prudent, before discussing Boston to ask, “Have you ever run Boston?” Or, better yet, wait for somebody else to ask. The Bear Bryant quote about scoring touchdowns comes to mind, “when you get in the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.”
Running is a very individual sport, and perhaps that’s why social interactions play out in a somewhat quirky way during marathons. I wonder if runners get into the habit of having internal conversations on training runs, and somehow that carries over to when they’re running in a group. I’ve heard that during hundred mile races, people start hallucinating and they need a spotter just to stay on course. Could it be that a little brain fry starts up within the first few miles?
My friend Eric is on a quest to do 100 marathons, and he’s a very good storyteller. He’s the type of person who always finishes a race with a group of 10 or 20 new best friends. Part of the reason he is such a good conversationalist is that he spends a lot of time asking questions instead of just talking about himself.
A few years ago I was running with Eric at the Birkie trail marathon and a guy caught up with us.
“The reason I’m running so slow,” the guy said, embarrassed to be in the company of heathens such as us, “is that I did a marathon last week and I haven’t recovered from it yet.”
He trotted off and Eric and I laughed. The guy didn’t ask, but we’d both done marathons the prior week as well.
I’ve found that there are some really interesting characters out there doing marathons. There are people who have run marathons on every continent, people who have done all 50 states multiple times, and people who have fascinating lives outside of running (as difficult as that is to believe). It’s always a great tactic in a race to find a group with a woman or a man who can manage an interesting group conversation and just sit back and listen and let the miles tick off.
It’s also fun to mess with people with too much to say.
At the Twin Cities Marathon, a guy was prattling on about how he was three-fourths of the way through the 50 states.
“I’m three-fourths of the way through all the countries,” I said. A silence descended as all the air got sucked out of the general vicinity. I let it last for a second, then burst out laughing. “I’m just messing with you,” I said, but the man was furious. Apparently I hadn’t given his personal quest enough deserved clout. I’m unaware of any rule book which outlines what quips are socially inappropriate, but maybe there’s one out there.
Most of the interactions during marathons are amusing and harmless. A lady came up to me at the base of lemon drop hill several years back and said, “I’ll need you to help me ascend this.” Then we chatted until we got to the top, and she went on her way. It’s really a special thing when you make a connection, even a brief one, with somebody during a marathon. You remember those moments fondly, and sometimes you even run into the same people in subsequent years. It’s great to aspire to be a positive presence in any social setting. Whether you’ve run one marathon or a thousand, we’re all in the same position when the gun goes off. It’s important to recognize, however, that quite often, the best way to show respect and support to your fellow competitors is to simply give them ample space to run their own race.
Walter Rhein is the author of “Beyond Birkie Fever” and “Reckless Traveler.”