MARATHON MAN

I ran the Philadelphia Marathon in 1983. In honesty, that stark statement is somewhat sanitized. There was some running involved, but also jogging, walking and some trudging. A lot of trudging.
How did this misadventure come about? Sex. I was motivated by sex. Why else does a young man do anything?
I was reminded of my marathon by a call this morning from my daughter, Kelly. She had just completed a half-marathon in New York, one of several she has participated in in recent years, along with assorted triathlons, 5k runs, walkathons, and other races “for” such causes as “human rights,” “hunger,” and “literacy.” It seems a whole industry has developed to sponsor and organize such runs throughout the country. Well-intentioned persons such as she sign up to participate and enlist friends and relatives to contribute money in support of their efforts. After costs are taken out to support the event and, doubtless, support the organizers of the event, remaining funds are contributed to the designated cause.
In 1983, things were simpler. The well-known marathons consisted of Boston, New York and the Olympics. Other cities were just beginning to recognize the tourism and publicity potential of such events, and so the schedule of marathons proliferated, pushed along by a tsunami of interest in “fitness” activities. Athletic gear companies such as New Balance and Nike, naturally, sponsored these events, as did the emerging industries of sports drinks and energy bars. I do not recall there being “half” marathons in those days. A marathon meant an unforgiving 26.2 miles.
Before the summer of 1983, I’d never considered running a marathon. In fact, I would have found the idea laughable if someone had proposed it to me. But my circumstances were the following: a twenty-six-year-old male, recently arrived to live and work in a small suburban town where I had not grown up, and where I knew no one close to my own age. As an almost non-drinker and a fervent non-smoker, I could not “do” the local bar scene. Internet dating (or the internet) had not yet been invented. I saw my only source of social life as “The Big Apple,” geographically close, but an awful train-subway schlepp away. And, considering my levels of experience and competence in striking up relationships (both very low) I perceived my chances of finding a girlfriend in New York like finding a needle in a haystack, if the searcher were blind. Thus, the surprise appearance of a trim, fresh-faced young woman one morning sitting at the desk just outside my law office seemed almost providential.
“Hi,” I said, trying to act casual, as though a female not describable as married, middle-aged and/or frumpy appeared there every day.
“Hello,” said a girl who identified herself as Kathleen. She looked up from her desk and smiled warmly.
“Do you work here?” I asked, aware the desk had been empty during my first two weeks at the firm.
“Yes, I’m working until the fall as Tom’s typist,” she said, indicating my boss’s brother.
I felt my face redden as I took in her green eyes, perfect teeth and cute freckles that evoked an Irish Spring soap commercial. If a jig had played in the background, I would hardly have been surprised.
“Um, that’s great, um, see you around, sometime,” I said, nonsensically, before retreating into my office. After all, I could not emerge without seeing her and being seen by her.
Over the next several days, I tried to concentrate on my new job representing home buyers and sellers, but my thoughts were constantly distracted by Kathleen. I acknowledge that Kathleen did not have “movie-star” looks, nor was she built like a beauty pageant winner, but for me, she was definitely the “only game in town.” Perhaps, I hoped, she felt the same about me. Gradually, I was able to converse with her without blushing and, one day, we arranged to share lunch.
Our conversation went as follows:
I: “Where did you go to college?”
She: “St. Mary’s.”
I: “Where’s that?”
She: “It’s the girls’ part of Notre Dame.”
I: “Oh, I didn’t know there was a girls’ part. I only knew about the football team.”
She: “I love football. Where did you go?”
I: “Dickinson.”
She: “Fairleigh Dickinson?”
I: “No, the real Dickinson, in Pennsylvania.”
She: “Oh, I never heard of it. Do they have a football team?”
I: “Barely.”
She: “Did you play football?”
I: (recoiling) “I played soccer.”
She: “I don’t really like soccer. It’s so boring. What did you study?”
I: “English literature. And you?”
She: “Business. My dad would never let me study something like literature, that wasn’t useful. He’s career FBI.”
I: “Haha. My dad’s career socialist. Your dad might have a file on my dad.”
She: “Hunh? What do you mean?”

I learned Kathleen had returned to her parents’ home only temporarily to await the anticipated start of a job late in the fall. I could see I mystified her when I described how I lived alone in a tiny bungalow surrounded by elderly neighbors. As I listened to her describe with too much enthusiasm the beer bashes she’d enjoyed on football (and most other) weekends at Notre Dame, I recognized we clearly had little in common besides the celibacy-inducing isolation of suburbia. Though I thought she was adorable, I couldn’t imagine how our relationship could progress beyond the office, until I heard her say:
“I really want to use this summer to train for a marathon.”
“Why in the world?” I said incredulously before recovering to say, respectfully, “that’s really ambitious.”
“But I don’t know if I can do it alone,” she said. “It’s so much work.”
“Really?” I said, my mouth moved ahead by a force stronger than rationality. “I might be interested.”
Kathleen’s face lit up. “It’d be a dream-come-true! According to the article I saw, you have to run six days a week, for four months, to get ready,” she said. “It’s like a ladder. You do one mile one day, two the next, one the third, three the next, then two, then four. After two months, you can run fifteen miles without being out-of-breath and then you just practice extending on up to 26.2.”
The concept of all that running sounded positively horrendous to me, but Kathleen was almost leaping out of her seat with excitement.
“So, like you do all that running together?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, smiling graciously at me as though I were holding the key to her happiness. “We would go for a run each day after work, then stretch, then grab something to eat. It would be so much fun! Maybe we could use your house as the base, since it’s so close to work.”
My mind was formulating how this would work. Since it was mid-July, there would be a lot of sweating, so a lot of showering, and a lot of physical exertion, huffing and puffing, and mutual encouragement, and all that. Eventually, this could only lead to one thing….
“I’ll do it,” I said.
“Really?” she said, delighted.

Training with Kathleen proceeded just as she had described and, in some ways, better than I had pictured. We actually enjoyed each other’s company, so long as we didn’t discuss politics, religion, books, the news, or basically, anything except sports, running and the weather. The hoped-for benefits of all the physicality indeed accrued; for a couple of months, I enjoyed the sort of mindless, meaningless relationship that had eluded me throughout college and law school. In addition, by September, I really could run fifteen miles without being winded, though I experienced occasional protests from such body parts as the ankles, knees and back.
During September, we sent entry forms to the newly established Philadelphia Marathon which was scheduled for the weekend before Thanksgiving. Our goal was to finish in less than four hours, an excellent result for first-time runners. And, since we were nearly below nine-minute miles in our training, the goal appeared reachable. Around this time, Kathleen finished working for Tom and departed for three weeks of training for her new job in Washington, though she was still not expected to start it full-time until months later. Curiously vague about the exact nature of the job, Kathleen assured me she would not have to transfer.
Kathleen promised to continue her training while she was away, and I pledged to do the same though, frankly, I looked forward to a break from the punishing, everyday pace of both the relationship and training. Without her there to prod me, however, it was exceedingly difficult to come home from work, lace up the running shoes, and pound the pavement alone for ten or twelve or sixteen miles. One day off became two, then three, then four. A weekend effort resulted in blisters as my tissues had relaxed, apparently, and then several more days off were necessary.
Our relationship (it had never quite been a “love affair”) also lost its momentum. Kathleen called once after several days, but we didn’t have much to say.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Okay,” she said.
“What kind of job are you training for again?” I asked.
“You know I can’t answer that,” she said.
Awkward silence.
“How’s running?” she asked.
“I skipped today,” I said. “It’s hard without you.”
“I can’t get out of activities here,” she said. “We’re scheduled every minute, so I’m losing my edge, too.”
She only called twice more over the remaining weeks. When Kathleen returned in early October, we were unable to reestablish our regular routine. We took several long runs together, but they were labored, as was our communication. Physically, we reverted to “just friends” status without even discussing it. I could still run fifteen or eighteen miles at a time, but it was tedious — early training sessions had taken less than an hour followed by fun activities with my new friend. Now, workouts required three-four hours followed by exhaustion with an increasingly distant and distracted acquaintance.
More blows arrived with November. The end of daylight savings time combined with chillier temperatures to make training runs positively torturous. We met two or three times each week but rarely completed the proscribed fifteen or twenty mile distance. Our pace was back over ten-minutes per mile.
We drove to Philadelphia the day before the race. Luckily, the weather was sparkly and clear, and not too cold. We enjoyed a pasta dinner sponsored downtown by race organizers and, when we arrived the next morning at the starting line, optimism prevailed.
“Good luck,” we wished each other, clasping hands.
We set off with a thousand others from a spot in Germantown. We proceeded towards Chestnut Hill, feeling strong and accompanied both by a crowd of runners and cheering crowds on the sidewalks. A steep hill stripped away some of our initial adrenaline and peeled us from the pack. Along with some other stragglers, we barely kept the main group in sight. After eight or ten miles, we were running largely alone along scenic Wissahickon Creek when Kathleen slowed to a walk with a stomach cramp. I stopped running also, and we fell farther behind the pack.
“Do you want to stop?” I asked.
“No, it’ll go away,” she said, looking agonized.
An arm appeared from a group of on-lookers and thrust a Coca-Cola into her hand. Kathleen sipped it slowly and the sugar or carbonation or both relieved her distress and we resumed running, but slowly.
Several miles later, with only a few other runners still in our vicinity, we reached Kelly Drive along the Schuylkill River. The sun-splashed scenery salved the pain we were both feeling. If the day were not so spectacular, I’m not sure we would have found the necessary determination to continue. We passed sculpture gardens and monuments along the road, the Victorian-era boathouses and, finally, the Art Museum. Thinking of Rocky, I noted the top of the steps would be a perfectly appropriate place to end the race. But, alas, the finish line was still five miles away at Independence Hall.
Police had held traffic throughout the course of the race but, as we entered Philadelphia’s flag-festooned Parkway, designed to match Paris’ Champs-Elysees, I could tell they were preparing to re-open the streets for traffic.
“We’d better speed it up,” I said, not wanting to be surrounded by cars.
“I can’t,” said Kathleen, as we raggedly walked and jogged. “You can go ahead.”
“I can’t either,” I admitted. “We’ll finish together.”
We saw just a few other marathoners, and I babbled cheerfully to Kathleen:
“We are like participants in a depression-era dance marathon.”
“What are you talking about?” she said, near tears. “Are you crazy?”
I realized it would be better to just plod on silently, to get it finished. When we finally stumbled into Independence Square, the organizers were disassembling their tables. Cars were already crossing the course. The clock at the finish line read 5:05. It should have been a moment of triumph and satisfaction, but I felt only a combination of relief and embarrassment as we finished ahead of only several significantly older participants. Our race, and our relationship, were over.
In the ensuing decades, though I have become an avid walker, I have never run more than a half-mile at one time. The marathon, and memories of the next day’s achy hamstrings, ankles, feet, knees and back, definitely cured me of that itch, an itch I’d never actually had. ONLY with the benefit of decades of hindsight, can I suggest the following pearls of wisdom:
1. Do not sign up for a daily, four-month activity with someone you barely know;
2. Do not join someone else’s dream with less than the purest of motives;
3. Recognize when you might be biting off more than you can chew;
4. When running a marathon, pack plenty of snacks, band-aids, and Advil; and
5. Train sufficiently to allow you to finish the race BEFORE the police remove the traffic barricades.

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