The Road Less Travelled..

Rohit Brijnath on the honour of completing a marathon. From this morning’s Straits Times.

EVERY athletic tribe, on casual examination, presents a particular image. Golfers look slothful and ice-skaters emotionally fragile. Marathoners, in contrast, seem like earnest, obsessive-compulsives who think War And Peace is light reading and the 100m is less a race than a short joke.

The marathoner, a deliberate fellow with a disdain for hurry, takes a 100 metres just to settle his water bottle on his hip. Usain Bolt, quick and flirty, might be fun to watch but his 100m race lacks the legend of the marathon.

No 100m runner requires mid-race alcohol rubdowns as occurred in the 1896 Olympic marathon. No 100m runner has been attacked by a defrocked priest during a race as happened at the 2004 Olympic marathon. And no 100m race is as frequently interrupted by hoaxers, short-cutters, Elvis impersonators, impostors and pranksters as the marathon.

Last weekend, in the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore, a runner left the course after 6km and then reappeared at the end. Even if a finisher’s T-shirt was his only motivation, sportingly it made no sense. Why feel the need to finish a race when you have first abandoned it? What pleasure lies in symbolically completing the incomplete race?

But this journey to 42km and 195 metres, under a spectating sun, has always led people astray. No traditional race in sport is as long, and so solitary, leaving an athlete too much time to think. Runners lose their bearing – at the 1908 Olympics, a dazed Dorando Pietri entered the stadium and set off in the wrong direction – and occasionally their moral compass.

Some get to the finish line legitimately with blood in their shoes and some arrive at the end looking oddly cool, having ridden an air-conditioned bus over half the distance. In 1904, at the Olympics, Fred Lorz was declared the winner till he admitted his prank involved an 11-mile (17.7km) car ride. Then, reportedly, it broke down, so he had to run.

The marathon’s length beckons both short cut and ingenuity. In ancient times, no one filmed the runner quaffing a brandy. Now they are snapped by iPhones, tailed by TV cameras and tracked by smart chips. It is hard not to get caught, yet mankind is an unstoppably original species.

In 1999, for instance, the Motsoeneng brothers handed over their race number to each other in a roadside toilet and exchanged places mid-race during the Comrades Marathon. It was the perfect crime but for a minor error: A photograph revealed they wore their watches on different arms.

The marathon is intriguing because it is a race of honour yet it is uniquely open to deceit. Real marathoners know their pain, their miles covered, their timings. They know what they have invested, what they have endured and that everything must be earned. They know the short cut demeans every sacrifice they have made. This is the no-bull**** sport: Here it is fine to try and not finish, but not to finish without adequately trying.

Honour matters for marathoners are not imprisoned in a stadium – they can leave the road to pee and the route to flee. So they must live by a code. Most do, but not everyone does in this crowded race of 16,000 people, where amateur and Haile Gebrselassie run the same course on the same day.

Not everyone moves out of the way. Not everyone makes their way honourably to the finish. Amid so many, the vain and the unsure, the T-shirt wanters and the braggers, there will always be some who don’t fully comprehend the idea of the marathon.

But they must learn. The beauty of this race lies in its spreading blisters, its diarrhoea in the bushes, and in people still running despite all that. Its beauty lies in respect for the road, in pulling limping strangers along, in being part of a family of pain, in just finishing.

Not everyone will know this, but in those race kits given to runners lies a perfect platform to influence. Just add one page on which marathon tradition is recorded, history recounted, etiquette suggested, values noted. Some will toss it, others may read it, and perhaps an idea will travel widely like an echo: Running builds health but also character.

Legend tells us this race was born from a moment in 490 BC when Pheidippides ran a great distance to carry news of the Greeks’ victory in the Battle of Marathon. “Be joyful, we win,” is one version of what he said.

His words are accurate about soldiering, but don’t quite fit this race of peaceful citizens. The marathon isn’t about winning, for only one of thousands can. Victory lies simply in going the distance. And to suggest you have finished without completing the journey is to gently cross the wrong line.

Rohit Brijnath’s other piece on running, love and inspiration – here

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