Week two: marathon as team sport

I did it.

On Saturday I went to the first marathon training for those of us planning to run 26.2 miles in February to raise money for AIDS Project Los Angeles. I ran three miles in Griffith Park, surrounded by other people doing the same thing. And I did not make a total fool of myself. I was timed at 13 minutes, 30 seconds per mile. To find your training time you add a minute, so I’m in the 14-minutes-and-30-seconds pace group.

At the end of the timed run the runners met briefly with our coach, a man named Scott Boliver who has run many marathons. He coaches part-time, and he told us that his day job is as a prison psychologist, an exercise in physical and mental discipline that can only be helpful in dealing with marathoner wanna-bes like me. He also told us that only half of the 200 or so people who showed up for this initial run would actually make it through the training and go on to run the marathon.

The main reason, he said, was not failure of physical ability. It was lack of fundraising follow-through. Each participant is responsible for bringing in $1,600 by early December. Those of us who don’t make it have to fork over a credit card and sign a form agreeing that if we still haven’t raised the cash by some time in January, then the fundraisers can charge us for the amount that we’re short. (They’ll reimburse if the money comes in later.) Clearly the thing to do is raise the money now, to avoid the drama and personal expense.

For me, fundraising is the easy part. I’ve squelched my qualms about asking friends and family to fork over a few bucks for a good cause. How hard can it be to open your wallet to help people with AIDS and HIV?

The training is another story.

I have never been good at sports, and organized sports, or any kind of sport that involves delivering a certain level of return for others, are especially fraught. My first and last team sports win was in second grade, when Stephanie Brown and I came in second place in the three-legged race. Sports at that time and place (1970’s, inner city Chicago) mostly meant things that could be played on concrete, like basketball and double-dutch, neither of which I was particularly good at. I did better with solitary endeavors, where the performance pressure was low. I could roller skate, bike, and jump on a pogo stick.

My elementary school didn’t include physical education or group sports in its regular curriculum. Occasionally, when the quantity of rain or snow surpassed even the high tolerance threshold set by school administrators, we’d be ushered into the auditorium basement for “motor skills,” which consisted of jumping jacks, sit-ups and a lot of hopping around. I managed, but I can’t say I was particularly adept at any of it, especially compared with most of my classmates, who seemed to have tapped into some secret knowledge about making physical exertion look effortless. Outside of school I was made to take ballet, where my ungainliness was impossible to disguise. The teacher’s amusement usually manifested itself in a sort of half-smile that I’m sure she imagined I didn’t notice. On one occasion my execution of a pirouette was so off-kilter that she burst out laughing.

By the time I got to high school so sure was I that I lacked all physical aptitude that I opted to join the school band (playing the flute) rather than take phys ed. Unbelievable as it might seem today, I made it through four years of high school without one moment of organized exercise of any kind. When I arrived at college I fully intended to continue on in the same way. But I’d enrolled at St. John’s, a small liberal arts college given over to the Great Books, an approach to learning that encourages both intellectual and physical development. Nearly all sports were intramural, and every freshman was assigned a team and encouraged to play any and all sports. Alas, my college sports career was brief. I showed up for a basketball game, but when the ball landed in my hands I was so flummoxed that I ran across the court without dribbling. Soccer baffled me (all that running around for nothing), and I lacked the hand-eye coordination for softball.

Sometime in my mid-20’s I discovered the joys of the gym. Meaning organized classes in pleasant, air conditioned spaces where no one expects anything of you. You can stop mid-class and sit down, or go get a drink of water, or not even show up and no gets upset or let down. Unfortunately the gym life fed my personal vanity (so many mirrors, so little time) and encouraged some unhealthy proprietary tendencies (a spinning bike became “my” bike, a certain shared locker became “my” locker).

Running these past couple of weeks has been the perfect solution. Solitary, humbling, and unencumbered by anyone’s expectations but my own.

The thing I learned at Saturday’s gathering is that training for a marathon with APLA is anything but private. Everyone is assigned to a pace group. You depend on the group and the group depends upon you. Your group members are your training companions, your support and comfort. You work toward your goals together. In other words, running as team sport. Not only that, but I have been appointed a pace group leader, not because I was acting particularly leaderly, but because I own a sports watch that counts laps. It will be my job to keep pace for the entire group.

So much for the loneliness of the long distance runner.

4:05 PM Sunday, October 5 2008 • Link •  
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