Week three: a fate worse than death (or at least more likely)

What do Pheidippides, Jim Fixx and Ryan Shay have in common?

All were marathoners, and all died either while running or shortly after.

Pheidippides, of course, was the original marathon man. Jim Fixx brought running to the masses (oh those legs!), and Ryan Shay was one of the most recent casualties in the phenomenon afflicting athletes known as “sudden death.”

The whole run-til-you drop concept contributes mightily to the mythology and macho-ness of marathons. Though I suspect that in this era of Ironman, extreme sports and Jackass, the notion of running a long way as ultimate physical test holds sway mainly among us 40-and-over types. Still, despite the occasional high-profile death, the likelihood of keeling over from running is pretty slim

The all-too-real danger is injury.

On Saturday I did my second group run at Griffith Park, joined by ten other runners of approximately the same fitness level and speed. Only two in the group had ever run a marathon (update on last week: though I had been chosen as a “pace group leader” because I possessed a watch that counted laps, our numbers had dropped sufficiently so that I was able to cede that task to the other, more experienced member of our group who had also been selected). The rest of us were drawn to try it for similar reasons: the desire to challenge ourselves physically and the chance to raise money to help people with AIDS and HIV. Our course took us over the 5 Freeway into Burbank, past the equestrian center and lots of condos. The course was two miles out and two miles back. It was a breezy, sunny morning. Great for running.

We cruised past a couple of runners sitting off to the side – they were in a faster group than ours but one of them had injured his foot and they were waiting for help. Then, just past the halfway point, a woman in our group named Hollie stepped off a curb sideways and twisted her ankle. She hadn’t been tired or sweating or running too hard. She was at least as fit as anyone else in the group. She simply put her foot in the wrong place.

Among the marathoners I’ve talked and corresponded with via email in the past few weeks, injury supplants the weather as the universal topic of conversation. Descriptions of physical ordeals are frequently subsumed beneath a euphoric reverence for the sport. Stress fractures, muscle pulls, shin splints, iliotibial band syndrome, plantar fascitis and achilles tendonitis. You name it, if it’s an impact injury affecting the lower body, runners have it.

One website claims that most running injuries are caused by the “terrible too’s”: too much training, too soon, too often and too fast. But most of the runners I’ve heard from would, I think, disagree. For them, running and injuries go together like most of life’s pleasures and pains. As my nine-year-old daughter would say, you’ve got to give something to get something. The question them becomes, how much of your physical well-being are you willing to give in order to get the ultimate running experience?

One marathoner who emailed me put it this way: “It's an amazing experience and an amazing transformation from 0-26.2 miles. You will not regret it (although you may suffer through some pain and injury).” He continued:

You will learn if you continue that you can ‘run through’ a great deal of this. I had calf pain at mile 2 on a 16 mile run and I pushed on. I had alternating calf spasms at mile 10 on that same 16 mile run (and my teammates all walked with me because I couldn't run--the greatest moment of solidarity during training for me). I ran when I was sick and I ran when I was well. I ran when my IT band hurt and sometimes I just couldn't go. But I used to think I had to feel good to run and now I know that I will most often feel better after I run even if I don't feel so well to start.

Another marathoner predicted “your feet will blister over several times until the shoes are broken in. You also will most probably lose a toenail or two from the constant pounding. It’s part of the price.”

This from yet another, who ran one marathon four years ago and none since: “Nearly wrecked my marriage over it, and wound up having foot surgery for the bunion I incurred while training. So… have fun with that!”

One woman of about 60 told me she was an avid runner and had never suffered serious injury. Her secret? Never run more than ten miles. “But it’s wonderful that you’re doing the marathon,” she added quickly. “I wish I had.”

One former runner I met at a party was waxing enthusiastic about running until his wife appeared. “Tell her why you stopped running,” she said. He smiled sheepishly and said nothing. “He broke both his legs,” she said, matter-of-factly, taking a sip of her drink.


The good news is that if you can make it through your marathon years without killing or maiming yourself, you’ll be better off down the road. In a definitive study conducted at the Stanford University School of Medicine, researchers compared the physical health of serious runners 50 years and older and their sedentary counterparts over eight years. Their finding: “Older persons who engage in vigorous running and other aerobic activities have lower mortality and slower development of disability than do members of the general population." According to the study, running is particularly beneficial to women of a certain age. This is a heartening conclusion, especially given that the study came out in 1994, just a decade after women finally persuaded the powers that be that running would not “ruin” them and were permitted – for the first time – to compete in an Olympic marathon.

Good to keep this in mind, for inspiration, as I shuffle along my extremely non-Olympic way.

I was going to stop there, but it seems only fitting that an essay on marathons, injury and death should end with Pheidippides. His famed run from Marathon to Athens, to announce the victory of the Greeks over the Persians, was a mere 25 miles. Not much for a professional runner, a man who ran hundreds of miles at a stretch, carrying messages to and fro.

In this rendering of his fate, as imagined by Robert Browning, we see the ultimate intertwining of sacrifice and exaltation.

He flung down his shield,

Ran like fire once more: and the space 'twixt the Fennel-field

And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,

Till in he broke: "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine thro' clay,

Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died, the bliss!

2:41 PM Sunday, October 12 2008 • Link •  
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