MUSKEGON, MI — From my house to Fremont. That’s roughly the distance he ran, in a paltry 2 hours, 2 minutes and 57 seconds.
Or to put it another way, from my neighborhood in eastern Muskegon to downtown Grand Haven. And back.
Like most non-distance runners, I have to struggle to put Dennis Kimetto’s recent achievement in perspective.
I have to somehow get outside my own head, where the distance to Fremont is never measured in hours but in 30 minutes or so. Or more likely, it’s about $4, or whatever the price of gasoline might be for 26 miles. I have to banish the hum of an internal combustion engine from my imagination and substitute the pounding of a pair of running shoes.
Most of us never run a marathon. And even among those who do, time and pace are irrelevant for many. It’s all about completing the course, not how quickly you complete it.
But Kimetto, a one-time subsistence farmer who used to pass the hours on a Kenyan field watching cows chew, recently spent about two hours watching the Berlin landscape flash by. When he burst across the finish line, he left the world record in glittering little pieces.
This is not just about the world of marathon running or even sports and competition. It’s about how as humans we keep redefining ourselves.
Think about it. Cheetahs, which are the supreme sprinters of the natural world, run for neither headlines, history nor glory. They run for dinner. Sometimes they eat, and sometimes they run on empty. When they’re healthy and well fed, their speeds top out at 60 to 70 mph.
That’s how fast they run today. It’s how fast they ran 100 years ago. And barring extinction or some unforeseen mutation, it’s how fast they’ll run 100 years from now.
But for us, it’s different. A little over 100 years ago, it took our fastest marathoners nearly three hours to complete the task. Now we’re coming up on the two-hour barrier. At our current rate of improvement, we should crack it some time before the year 2030.
We push, we diet, we train, we change. We almost become a different species.
The first world record-holder was, I suppose, the first marathoner. History, or historical legend, records his name as Pheidippides, a part-time soldier and part-time foot courier, who is said to have run the 26 miles plus from Marathon to Athens to report the Greek military victory over the Persian imperial army.
Nobody much remembers his precise time, which is reported as somewhere under 36 hours. Nor do we remember his exact message, variously reported as “Joy, we win” or “Hail, we have won,” or something to that effect. Mainly we remember that having delivered his message, Pheidippides collapsed and died.
But there is more than pathos in this story. There is meaning. Think of the sport of marathoning, how we use it as analogy. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We say this about completing high school. We say it about earning a degree. We say it about making a successful marriage. We say it about life.
One day, not long ago, I altered my daily walk, which is about the closest I get these days to running a marathon. I passed a funeral home. Sometimes the parking lot is empty, but that day there were scores of cars, and mourners had spilled into the parking lot. Some were clustered in threes and fours, sharing memories, talking, for at least the time it took me to pass.
I was looking at not one marathon, but scores of them. I wasn’t just witnessing a marathon just completed; I was looking at marathons being run on a course that had taken a sharp left turn and would never be the same again.
This is how you mark a marathon’s progression – not when some personal odometer flips to a nice round number, but when the challenge sharpens, and you hit the wall, and every step becomes an uphill step, and you keep running anyway.
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