What’s to see? A woman from Norway, a guy from Kenya, and twenty thousand losers.
— Jerry Seinfeld on the New York Marathon
We prepare in silence. I fill six small bottles, two with Gatorade and four with water, loading them into our hydration belts. My wife, Anne, toasts two slices of bread, and we munch them slowly, our eyelids still heavy with sleep. We cinch our hydration belts tight over our running shorts and double-knot our shoes, going over a mental checklist to make sure we have applied the obligatory deodorant, body glide, and (for me) NipGuards. Finally, we head out onto the streetlamp-lit sidewalk. Even at this hour, there is still some traffic rolling lazily along the streets of north Chicago—taxis, city busses, street sweepers. Once we’ve hit our stride a few miles in, we veer off the streets and onto a path. The still glow of the city sits on our right, and on our left stretches the inky black expanse of Lake Michigan.
Still waking up, we don’t talk much, and I attempt to recall recent passages we’ve read in our training guidebook: “Part of being psychologically prepared for [hitting] the wall is to have accepted the idea that, in spite of all your training (even if you run every mile the training schedule calls for), your body will not be ready to run 26.2 miles.”
Why did I sign up for this? I think.
Anne must be thinking something similar. “Do your knees hurt?” she asks.
In the last four months of training we’ve run nearly four hundred miles. Today is a sixteen-miler, one of our last long training runs before race day. I couldn’t feel less ready. The dull pain in my knees has become permanent. My hips click. The bones in my feet feel like they’ve come apart. I have blisters that have blisters. Each run I try to lubricate, to cover, to secure my every moving part, but my body is splotched with slick reddish chafe marks, including one right in the small of my back where one of the bottles on my hydration belt rubs. Anne and I refer to it jokingly as my tramp stamp.
I never knew training for a marathon would be this humiliating.
When I signed up, I imagined that by this time our training routine would have molded me into my mental image of a marathoner—someone with a hard, definite shape, like something die-cast or designed by Apple. This mental marathoner was exuberant and confident, exuding a kind of deathless glow. People like this are out there, to be sure. I saw them as the light began to break on the lakeshore path. But I was not becoming one of them. I watched sadly as they strode past us with perfect composure, their pristine, sweatless athletic wear encasing their whippet-like frames.
In the legend of the first marathon, Pheidippides dies after carrying news of a Greek military victory to fellow soldiers. It makes sense then that we imagine that running a marathon requires a level of athleticism that almost touches immortality. But I’ve learned that even for the most godlike marathoner, training is often a delicate dance with injury. You want to train just enough to be ready for the race, but if you run any more than that, you risk a muscle tear or a stress fracture. The only successful runners are the ones who take their limits and their frailties very seriously.
An abdominal twinge interrupts my thoughts. “Where are the Porta Potties?” I ask, scanning the park for the blue rectangles that typically crowd the edges of every parking lot and soccer field. Now about an hour into the run, the path is fully lit, and the dewy grass is beginning to warm and give off that late fall smell. The paths are gathering walkers, cyclists, and runners like us. We pass a woman pushing a small dog in a stroller.
“I don’t see them. That’s weird. Is it an emergency?”
“No,” I say, “not yet.”
Recently, this has become the most embarrassing part of our training. Instead of achieving that heroic feeling I had initially imagined, I seem to be acquiring the problems of old age. I now require regular pit stops on our long runs, a fact that makes me plan our training routes with careful scrutiny, making sure there are plenty of bathrooms along the way.
A mile passes. Two miles. No Porta Potties.
“We’re almost to the park restrooms,” Anne says.
But as we approach the little rest-stop-like building, I find another runner already staring at the men’s bathroom door in dismay. It is padlocked with a bar drawn across the door. We have no choice but to keep running. And then, as we make our way past more empty soccer fields and tennis courts, I realize that today is Labor Day. That is why the restrooms are closed.
Soon full gastrointestinal distress sets in. Inside my abdomen there’s a churning and then a sound like someone gunning their engine at a stoplight. But there’s no point in turning back; we’re nearly eight miles out, and we know there are no open bathrooms on the ground that we’ve already covered. I start to calculate how cold the lake must be this time of year in case I have to dive in.
Later, I learned that my problem on this run is very common. It’s shared by 30 to 50 percent of runners. It’s called runner’s trots. Google it. Better yet, don’t Google it. I did, and what I found left me transfixed in horror as I scrolled through page after page of stories about runners who pushed things too far and lost control in that most basic, most mortifying way. There’s Mansfield University’s Jess Scordino who became an All-American in 2013 but in the process, as she put it, “crapped her pants.” Scordino had to forego post-race celebration in favor of a rush to the locker room. There’s the Swedish distance runner Mikael Ekvall who earned the moniker bajsmannen (“poop man”) after he succumbed to diarrhea during the 2008 Göteborg half-marathon. Ekvall also kept running. You may have seen a picture of him that circulated on the Internet displaying his grimacing face as the coffee-colored liquid streams down his long white legs. A caption below reads, “FAIL.” There’s also the women’s marathon world-record holder, Paula Radcliffe, who pulled out of the marathon in the Athens Olympics due to runner’s trots. The following year Radcliffe decided to stay in the London marathon despite similar discomforts, and she eventually had to squat to relieve herself at mile 22 in view of fans and TV cameras. At least she won the race. And there’s ultramarathoner Bruce Fordyce who is rumored to be so experienced with runner’s trots he keeps sponges in his shorts just in case.
The list could go on and on; this is only the tip of the filthy iceberg. It doesn’t account for all of the less famous but no less embarrassing tales of runners’ toilet troubles, not to mention other embarrassments due to untimely periods, T-shirts streaked red from bleeding nipples, vomit, and other dishonorable discharges.
On the path, now thick with runners, I reach my own crisis. “Sorry,” I mutter to Anne under my breath, and all at once I’m off racing across a field toward a chain link fence. Somehow I manage to roll my body over it and into a nearby patch of trees that give some sparse cover. Whether out of ignorance or pity, no passerby comments or comes to investigate. Some sheets of newspaper that have blown into the tree patch—thank God for Chicago litter!—help me make myself presentable, and in a few minutes I rejoin Anne where she has moved down the path about a hundred or so feet (whether out of disgust or out of fear of embarrassment, I don’t bother to ask). After a shrug and few swigs of Gatorade, we’re back on the path, bearing down on the second half of our run.
In the days after my brush with humiliation, I remembered something the psychologist Ernest Becker once wrote: “Christianity took creature consciousness—the very thing man most wanted to deny—and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism.” I began to wonder why, in a culture so shaped by Christianity, I never saw sports as a way to embrace creatureliness. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up believing that sports were compatible with religion. In fact, I believed the combination was easy and obvious.
In my small Midwestern hometown, Sundays were sacred times, reserved in equal parts for faith and football. My youth group leaders wore Kurt Warner jerseys and doubled as sponsors for our local Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter. I nodded in approval when a wide receiver kneeled to offer a prayer of thanksgiving in the end zone or when a kicker pointed a finger to the heavens, directing his field goal to the greater glory of God. My church even hosted popular Super Bowl watching parties for local kids, substituting a DVD about a Christian athlete for the regularly scheduled halftime show. But we did all of this because athletes, and especially Christian athletes, were models of hard work, strength, and persistence, not because they could teach us about the limits and frailties of our flesh.
The idea of the Christian athlete is a relatively recent one, but it has always been attended by an overemphasis on the ideal, able (and usually white male) body. The idea began with a nineteenth-century movement called Muscular Christianity, which was led by Charles Kingsley, an Anglican clergyman and novelist who propagated a sweeping revisionist account of all of Christian history. He claimed that in the early centuries after Constantine, Christians in the Near East and North Africa were “morbid, self-conscious, physically indolent, [and] incapable then, as now, of personal or political freedom.” Congenitally weak in body and mind, they “afforded material out of which fanatics might easily be made, but not citizens of the kingdom of God.” Were it not for an “infusion of new and healthier blood” from brawny northern Europeans (ancestors of Kingsley himself), Christendom might have failed.
Kingsley’s ideal Christian was what he called “manly”—physically strong and morally certain, in command of himself and of the world around him. He sought the “the excitement of animal exercise” that came from cutting wood, playing cricket, hunting, shooting, and fishing. Kingsley claimed his culture was overfeminized and overcivilized. What it needed, he said, was a new crop of men in touch with their primal, barbarian impulses. In one of Kingsley’s novels, he introduces us to several such barbarians, men with names like Smid, Amalric, and Wulf who don bearskin cloaks and say things like, “Five minutes’ good fighting, and no one killed! This is a shame!”
Before Muscular Christianity, Christians often played games, of course. And many strove to be healthy and treated their physical well-being as a great blessing. But Muscular Christianity’s revolution was in making health—rather than, say, love, truth, sincerity, or devotion—the criterion of a successful religious life. Any religious tradition the Muscular Christian writer abhorred (such as Catholicism, for instance) he could easily dismiss as weak, effeminate, overrefined, or diseased (terms which Muscular Christian writers used interchangeably). They were confident they could look back over the history of Christianity and parse the healthy strains from the morbid ones. For example, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, one of the first to introduce Muscular Christianity to the United States, complains,
Of the four famous Latin fathers, Jerome describes his own limbs as misshapen, his skin squalid, his bones as scarcely holding together; while Gregory the Great speaks in his Epistles of his own large size, as contrasted with his weakness and infirmities. Three of the four Greek fathers—Chrysostom, Basil, and Gregory Nanzianzen—ruined their health early, and were invalids for the remainder of their days.
He concludes that it was only “abled-bodied men” among the Church fathers—Ambrose, Augustine, and Athanasius—who were able to have a true and lasting influence. In other words, as it goes for one’s physical body, so it goes for one’s doctrines, even if that means consigning centuries of theology to the rubbish heap.
Thanks in part to Higginson’s influence, forms of Muscular Christianity spread rapidly through all levels of American society. Elite colleges like Yale and Princeton eventually came to make it their official doctrine for raising up student athletes. More plebian institutions like the YMCA took Muscular Christianity to the masses in urban areas all around the country. So radical was the shift that by 1903 William James claimed that “a sanguine and ‘muscular’ attitude, which to our forefathers would have seemed purely heathen, has become in [many] eyes an ideal element of Christian character.”
It’s difficult to overstate the influence of Muscular Christianity on American culture. It lies behind so many of our values relating to sports and so-called ideal bodies. It lies behind our sense of woundedness and incredulity every time an athlete breaks the rules, abuses a spouse, or gets caught using drugs, making us feel betrayed, as if the player hasn’t lived up to some unspoken cultural contract that states that physical and moral health go together. But most of all, it leads us to ignore the ability of the anawim, what Terry Eagleton calls “the shit of the earth—the scum and refuse of society,” to become Christian heroes.
The marathon is not the type of sporting event the adherents of Muscular Christianity favored. I can’t imagine Kingsley cheering in the crowd. There’s no physical contact in the marathon, for one. And for another, the race is long; Anne and I planned to finish in five and a half hours, probably too slow for what Kingsley called “the excitement of animal exercise.”
But there were over a million people that day who were not like Charles Kingsley. Every step of the way, through twenty-nine different neighborhoods, we were surrounded by spectators. They stood at the bases of skyscrapers and along the bridges that zigzag across the Chicago river. They passed out cups of Gatorade and didn’t seem to mind when their pants and shoes got lacquered by splashes of the sugary drink. In one neighborhood, there were dancers; in another, an Elvis impersonator. There were people holding signs, people giving high fives, people shouting enthusiastically into bullhorns. We breezed through the first several hours. As fifteen or sixteen miles went by we laughed, made jokes, enjoyed the scenery, and pumped our fists to “Eye of the Tiger” and “The Final Countdown.”
Four hours in, the crowds kept on cheering. Seventeen miles. Eighteen miles. When Anne and I began to wince with knee pain, they cheered even louder. Then that dreaded moment came just after mile nineteen: we hit the wall. It felt as if the entire road were a moving walkway headed in the wrong direction. They kept on cheering. A man handed out ziplock bags filled with ice cubes. A boy raced up to us with blue sponges that had been steeped in a kiddie pool filled with cold water. An elderly woman sitting at the side of the road offered up a handful of Werther’s Original candies to us as we struggled slowly by.
Twenty-one miles. Twenty-two miles. We shuffled past a nursing home. The shapes of residents were discernible many floors up, waving down to us from inside their rooms, and as I lumbered past, I couldn’t help but think, They’re watching us lose. They’re watching us lose, and they don’t care.
What a strange, backward sport the marathon is. Every other sport is a series of skirmishes that leads to a big finale, a grand moment of final victory. But in the marathon, the winners are the first to leave the stage. After that, the show is turned over to the tens of thousands of idiots and amateurs who, caring little or nothing about the actual competition, keep on running. In a marathon, spectators see the most of people who wear the wrong kind of shoes that don’t fit right anyway, the people who never shed their extra pounds, the ones who don’t bother about perfect mile splits or qualifying times or sodium pills. Far from being the domain of the demigods, the marathon is the sport of those humble creatures who fail—and it is watched by those who think, despite it all, that they are heroes.
Twenty-four miles. We could hear the announcer in the distance. Twenty-five miles. As we crossed the finish line, Anne and I clasped our moist, shaky hands together and lifted them up like prize fighters.
When we could finally catch our breath, I said, “We’re never doing that again, right?”
She said, “No, Never!”