Politics & Policy

America’s Running of the Bulls

The Boston Marathon.

Boston — Here in Massachusetts, today is Patriots’ Day, created to commemorate the Battles of Concord and Lexington, and give New Englanders the satisfaction of filing their tax returns a day later than everyone else (at least that’s the added perk of living here most years).

More important, however, it’s Marathon Monday: the day of the Boston Marathon, America’s running of the bulls.

This morning, 23,000 people will mill the streets of Hopkinton, a.k.a. Land of a Thousand Porta-Potties, awaiting the chance to run 26.2 miles on unforgiving pavement in a cold rain. Normally, the non-running public lines the route to offer applause and high fives to the runners; like spectators of any American sport, many see the event as an opportunity to consume multiple brats. The course passes seven towns and innumerable front lawns, upon which, on more pleasant days, people set up grills and webbed lawn chairs so they can make themselves comfortable while finding entertainment in the suffering of others. The coliseums of Rome may have crumbled, but the dust hitched a ride with Columbus and settled on the sidewalks of Wellesley.

Today’s forecast, however, promises heavy rain and belligerent winds, which won’t keep the runners away, but will drive most spectators inside, where there still will be opportunities for voyeurism. After the Super Bowl, the Boston Marathon has the most on-site media coverage of any single-day sporting event. Eleven hundred people have obtained media credentials, meaning there is one reporter for every 20.9 runners, a media-subject ratio rarely exceeded except at funerals of princesses and playmates.

In a normal year — one without a Nor’easter bearing down — about 500,000 people line the marathon route. The spectators can be divided into three camps: people who are runners themselves and followers of long-distance running; people who know someone participating; and people who look upon the Boston Marathon, or any marathon, with the same astonishment and disgust as a marathon runner looks upon the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest (in which last year’s winner consumed 53 ¾ hot dogs in 12 minutes).

Four-hundred, thirty thousand Americans ran a marathon last year, which means that 300 million did not. But the numbers are climbing. At the inaugural Boston Marathon — April 19, 1897 — there were 15 starters, 10 finishers. Ten years ago, 10,471 people ran Boston; the number is twice that today, but would quadruple if the Boston Athletic Association didn’t limit the field. (The wistful populated craigslist over the weekend: “Looking for a Bib to run Boston. Rain, sleet, or snow, I’ll run in anything. Will pay for number and reimburse any other fees.”)

Thirty-six thousand people ran New York’s marathon this year; 32,000 ran Chicago’s. Only a few hundred have any hope of winning, even in their age category. But many will do it again and again: Running magazines are filled with stories of people who run a marathon each month, or one in every state. There are ultramarathoners, like Dean Karnazes, author of Ultra Marathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner. He’s run 226 miles without stopping. Then there’s Dave McGillivray, the Boston Marathon director, who’s too busy putting on the race to run in it, so after the streets are cleaned and the Kenyans have boarded their planes, he returns to Hopkinton and runs the marathon course, by himself, late in the afternoon.

All this might lead the brat-eating spectator to pause long enough to wipe the Sam Adams foam off his chin and ask, in all seriousness: Are these people nuts?

No, they’re not. We’re not, and I speak now not just for marathoners, but for anyone who has ever pierced the front of a perfectly good Spandex/Lycra blend shirt with four safety pins and run with the Red Bulls in the rain. We’re not nuts. We’re addicts. We deserve your sympathy and love.

New York Times science writer Gina Kolata explained all this years ago in her book, Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for the Truth about Exercise and Health. In it, Kolata examines the work of a pair of Canadian psychologists who documented running addiction in rats. “Rats come to like addictive drugs so much that they will repeatedly push a lever in hopes of getting them. They will do the same thing to get access to a running wheel,” Kolata wrote.

Addicted rats would run up to 12 miles a day, so much that they would literally starve themselves to death because they refused to curtail their running even when it created a life-threatening caloric imbalance. Even when not killing themselves, they would become cantankerous when deprived of their runs. To anyone who has lived or worked with a runner, this explains a lot.

Evidence for the “runner’s high” is largely anecdotal, but scientists are increasingly crediting exercise of all varieties as a valid antidote for depression. Even for people who are not depressed, exercise generally, and running specifically, fills the pleasure void that is the curse of modern American life.

An example: When I was a kid, the annual airing of How The Grinch Stole Christmas was the highlight of the Christmas season. Forty years later, I still love the show, but the pleasure I derive from it diminished the day it was released on video. The show is now available for my viewing enjoyment at any time of day, but the plethora of Grinches makes for less pleasure, not more.

So goes almost everything else we enjoy, living in the wealthiest country in the world, in the wealthiest era of time. The lives of our ancestors were often dreary and grueling, but pleasure, when they could find it, was genuine and often sublime. Without the capacity to instantly download a symphony or a speech, their ability to enjoy these things topped ours. These days, Americans of good health and modest means are relentlessly pursued by happiness. Because we have so much to enjoy, we enjoy it less and must continuously find new sources of pleasure. Some find it in Prozac; others in running 26 miles in the rain.

On Saturday, Brian MacQuarrie of the Boston Globe reported that, “With a nasty brew of heavy rain, cold and headwinds forecast for Monday, authorities are scrambling to mitigate the misery of 23,000 runners in what could rank among the worst conditions of the Boston Marathon. More than 1,200 medical personnel will line the 26.2-mile course, waiting to treat runners for hypothermia or injuries.”

There will be misery, sure, but mostly on the media trucks, not at the finish line. Twenty thousand or so runners will complete the race, and they will be chafed and blistered and shivering, and many will catch colds this week. But they will also know a realm of pleasure and satisfaction that can never be found in a brat, and it will be heightened by the adversity and pain. Just ask any rat.

Jennifer Graham is a writer and editor who resides, with pleasure, in the Town of a Thousand Porta-Potties.


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