I’ve written before how I like to read the results of the finishers of marathons I run, especially the last and oldest. From the publicly published information, it’s the most inspiration you can get. I’m sure it barely scratches the surface of what some athletes overcome to finish, but I look for inspiration where I can. Since I registered for last year’s New York City marathon lottery (but didn’t get a number), I got the Road Runners Club’s magazine with the times from last November’s race.
Before starting at the last finishers I notice they list the wheelchair finishers after the runners. I didn’t realize there were two divisions where I thought there was one — wheelchair and handcycle, men’s and women’s for each. Only a few dozen competed in each. The winners in those divisions always have the fastest times of the whole race — wheels help going down those hills, which I imagine they tear up. David Weir of Great Britain won the men’s wheelchair division in 1:37:29. He was 31, which you’d think was around a peak age to win a marathon, but Masazumi Soejima of Japan was 2 seconds — 2 seconds!! — behind him and he was 40 years old. I imagine it was a duel at the end where they both finish unable to talk or function at anything but catching their breath, then hug at realizing how the other helped each to achieve what he never would have alone.
People who watch marathons, whether their first or after many times, routinely cry or choke up. The emotion on display is so raw it’s hard to avoid catching it. The event takes such dedication, discipline, effort, focus, and practice — yet is accessible to anyone. Seeing wheelchair athletes tends to evoke yet more emotions. I can imagine the scene as these two athletes sprinted across the line.
The winning woman in the wheelchair division, Tatyana McFadden of Maryland, was 45 years old — more than five years older than me. She finished in 2:02:22, six minutes ahead of Christina Ripp of Colorado, fifteen years her junior!
Looking at the handcycle division… Holy cow! The men’s winner, Dane Pilon of North Carolina, at 50 years old (!!) outsprinted Arkadiusz Skrzypinksi of Poland by 1 second, finishing at 1:21:23. As in women’s wheelchair, DP was fifteen years older than AS. Can you imagine that finish? I wonder how close they were the whole race. Did one catch the other at the end, maybe to win from behind? Did one dominate the whole time, barely keeping his lead as a challenger approached? Were they neck and neck the whole race? I can’t think of an unthrilling possibility.
Double wow! The women’s handcycle winner was 62, Helene Hines of New York, in 2:02:16. The next after her was Minda Dentler of New York — 30 years younger and seven minutes later.
Scanning the wheeled competitors, the youngest I see is a 20 year old man — Neal Cabanting, from Washington DC. The oldest is a 78 year old woman, one Sister Mary Gladys from Connecticut, finishing in 6:20:39. She’s double my age.
Oops. Two corrections.
An 18 year old man — just a kid — Charles Sweswn from Colombia finished in 2:09:26 in the handcycle division. An amazing early performance.
And an 80 year old woman from New York, Rosalie Ames finished handcycling in 4:28:31, ahead of over a dozen other handcyclers, men and women.
Folks, how is this not inspiring?
Okay, on to the runners.
Among the slower finishers I see a Joy Johnson, 83 years old from California, finishing in 8:04:59, with 26 others finishing behind her, ranging in age from 19 to 67 — 16 to 64 years younger than her!
The next oldest I see are one 70 year old two or three minutes ahead of her and a few runners in their sixties.
My best time is a respectable 3:51, so let’s jump forward and look around there. In particular, it’s always nice to beat a round number like four hours. Three runners finished at 3:59:59 — a 30, a 40, and a 60 year old. If I get to run this year I’ll be forty, so there’s all the inspiration I need to beat 4 hours.
With staggered starts, it’s harder and harder to know your time. For those who don’t know, you run with a chip on your shoe that checks when you pass chip readers. In particular, your finishing time doesn’t include the time it takes to cross the starting line, which in New York City can take more than a quarter-hour. But the clock at the finish line only shows one time so you need a watch or a good head for math while running to know your time.
When I ran that 3:51 I think the race clock said something over four hours and I was sprinting just to beat four hours. I didn’t realize I beat my personal best until they posted my official time. Who knows if these three runners knew they were just under 4 hours.
It’s tempting to think they were shooting for great new times, but how much can you tell from just a name and a time? In some ways, the mystery is more intriguing. Did they sprint to beat a round number? Were they running in their tenth marathons and just enjoying themselves? Were they expecting to run sub-3 hour marathons and hurt themselves, barely able to finish? Even watching them finish — perhaps hundreds per minute when they did — you can only imagine their stories. They may have crossed the finish line half an hour apart from each other.
Meanwhile four runners crossed at 4:00:00 and another three at 4:00:01. Were they disappointed at just missing beating that round number? Ecstatic to do so well? Just enjoying themselves? Whatever you speculate, if it doesn’t apply to them, it applies to one of the other tens of thousands of runners. Marathon runners are diverse in nearly every way you can imagine except one — none of them shied away from the challenge of what others, and possibly they themselves before doing it, consider a superhuman feat.
I used to wonder why people considered finishing a marathon superhuman or impossible when the contrary evidence of tens of thousands of runners of every physical characteristic finishing in races around the world was overwhelming. Eventually I settled on the explanation that they held on to their belief contrary to overwhelming evidence to protect themselves.
I’ve written other posts on people not even trying to achieve their potential in some way. I don’t understand such a life. Marathon running requires so little you aren’t born with — a pair of shoes, some socks, running shorts, time, and some space are all you need. I guess the wheeled athletes need a chair, which they must already have. I’ve run marathons next to blind runners, runners with crutches, and so on.
This issue of the magazine featured the Edison Pena, the Chilean miner stuck underground for 69 days, running up to six miles a day in the mine. Apparently when the New York Road Runner’s Club heard about him they decided to invite him, perhaps to ride in a pace car or hold the finishing tape. He ran and walked — finishing in 5:40:51.
Before the race he said about his training “I was going to turn the tables on destiny. I was saying to that mine, ‘I can outrun you. I’m going to run until you’re just tired and bored of me.’ And I did it.”
“I wanted to show the world I could do it,” he told reporters afterward. “I struggled with myself, with my own pain. But I made it to the finish line.”
It’s hard to imagine someone having less space than he had. Just goes to show you: one of the few things more confining than being trapped in a mine for 69 days is the confinement of a belief that you can’t do it. Someone believing they can’t do something they can and want to … one of the saddest things I can think of.
Back to the other finishers, while flipping back to the runners around 3:00:00, I happened to notice a runner at 3:18:45 — better than half an hour better than my best time — one Andre Lacour of France finished… at 70 years old! That pace is just off a 7:30 mile, which is what I ran in college and graduate school when I would run laps of Central Park — a mere six or twelve miles, less than a quarter or half of what this guy ran. So it’s not hauling ass, but it’s a great pace. Last year I think I ran a lap at his pace and it was punishing. His training must have been incredible.
I couldn’t resist looking him up. I just typed “andre lacour marathon” and it turns out he was the French champion in marathons in 1969, two years before I was born. He trains with a 60 year old. In 2007, he was third in his age group for marathons worldwide. If I read the French of this other article right, he won his age group at 60 in 2000. I think it also says he was a physicist. But that article says the New York City marathon begins in Brooklyn, not Staten Island, so can we trust it?
Now let’s zip to the beginning. The winning man, Gebre Gebremarium of Ethiopia, was 26, young to be on the world stage. His time of 2:08:14 meant he averaged faster than five minute miles for the course. I’ve never run a single mile in close to five minutes. I’d wager few people ever have. He averaged twenty six of them in a row over big hills and suspension bridges with big climbs. To anyone but a trained sprinter, that’s hauling ass. For a long time.
Six minutes after him came a 38 year old, a mere one year younger than me. Then at 2:24:03 came a 40 year old Mexican man. I plan to enter the lottery this year, which would put me at 40 years old. I don’t plan to try to finish within an hour of his time. My priorities just aren’t the same. But I would like to think about qualifying for Boston. At forty, I would need to run in 3:20 — thirty minutes faster than my best. I’d need to train more than I ever have (well, when I ran during ultimate seasons I trained more total, but mostly for ultimate, and then I had tournaments within a week before the marathon, which could not have helped my times).
Well, would you look at that. I just realized they separate the listings by sex. Makes sense, but I didn’t notice it because there are so many. So the 3:59:59 times were just one sex. The top finishers were just the men.
I’ve been writing and inspiring myself for a few hours already, though I love browsing through these times, imagining stories for each runner, finding inspiration. Every finisher’s story is remarkable — whether the race was easy for him or her or the biggest challenge he or she has ever overcome. If it’s easy, what made it easy, because I guarantee it wasn’t that he or she could just get up and run it. A marathon measures not so much innate ability as training. No one can finish a marathon without significant training. So for runners for whom finishing was easy, I can only imagine they loved the training. Many calories burned and much sweat, but relatively less emotional effort required. That’s my style of training.
Or was it life-changingly hard? Well, those are the stories we all imagine. Those are the stories that inspire us. If we can endure a grueling marathon, how easily will we be able to handle comparative trivialities like a micromanaging boss or meddlesome roommate?
Before closing, I’ll note a separate piece the magazine had for the oldest finisher this year, 90 year old Jon Mendes of Manhattan, who ran and walked for a just-over 9 hour finish. He trains with an 80 year old kid and ran with that guy and his 18 year old grandson. It was his twelfth New York City marathon.
“You’ve got to have goals in life or you wither away,” he told the New York Times. “It’s no disgrace to fail, only not to try.”
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