Monday, May 28, 2012

The Art of the Marathon

True artistic talent is worthy of envy.  The ability to create beauty whether it is with paint, words, voice, or musical instrument is inspiring.  It calls others to emulate and develop similar talents.  Beauty often inspires the creation of more beauty.  Not all art translates immediately into beauty.  At times art reminds us of pain and sorrows, sacrifice and loss.  The beauty becomes apparent as the emotions and memories are experienced.  Often beauty becomes apparent while art is being created. 

Kyoshi Nakamura, the famous Japanese marathon coach, said, “The marathon is an art; the marathoner is an artist.” 

Now, after only four marathons and a handful of other long distance races, I can’t claim to be a world-class marathon artist, but I have seen and experienced the art. 

An artist learns to be an expert in their medium.  A runner’s medium is the body and time.  The course, whether for a training run or a race, provides the canvas. 

An artist seeks and finds the best tools to create art.  Painters select their brushes; runners pick their shoes.  Musicians select their reeds and strings; runners pick their favorite form of lubrication to prevent chafing.

An artist practices before presenting their art to the public for naked evaluation.  The flutist plays musical arrangements repeatedly.  Different pieces are played to sharpen different skills, often dependent on the next performance on the docket.  The runner hits the trail or road repeatedly before the race, running different distances and different routes to develop the endurance and speed necessary for the race at hand.

The artist, having learned from practice which strokes work and how long to hold each note, develops a strategy for the performance or piece to be exhibited.  The runner, following miles of practice, develops and executes a strategy for the race; at least they execute it as best they can.

The artist often seeks inspiration as part of their creative process.  They seek meaning and purpose for their efforts.  The runner needs inspiration to push through the hard miles, to train on days when there are so many other things demanding attention.  Inspiration is required to push through the pain on race day, reaching out for the day’s goal whether it is simply finishing, achieving a new personal record, or placing.  A true artist is able to share their inspiration, passions, emotions, and message through their medium.

 At this point, it’s likely that many of you remain unconvinced that distance running is an art form.  How does running and sweating mile after mile compare to the paintings of Michelangelo, the poetry of Robert Frost, or the musical genius of Mozart?  To continue my argument I think a clear definition of art will be helpful.  According to, art is:

“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

Does running produce a work “to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power,” particularly in the non-participant, in the observer?  Absolutely!  The canvas of a marathon is an amazing panorama stretching from the bus ride to the start line and ending in the winners’ area.  Have you ever been to the starting area of a marathon?  The variety of runners astonishes and inspires.  As expected you see the skinny, athletic runners.  You also see the older runners, those in their 50s, 60s, 70s and a few in their 80s.  You see runners who are overweight, disabled.  You see mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandmothers, grandfathers, and loners.  Looking at them you begin to think about their backgrounds and their motivations.  The emotions begin to come forth as you consider what would motivate these people to do something so hard, so physically demanding. 

At the starting area you see strategies unfold.  Clothing was selected carefully and donned to include shoes.  Proper hydration is addressed.  Nutritional supplements are placed in pockets and belts for easy access.  Muscles are warmed and stretched.  In the faces you see worry, fear, and confidence—sometimes all three rolling across one face.

A marathon, as an art, perhaps compares more favorably in its construct to a symphony.  Like the music, the efforts of the runner ebb and flows building to a crescendo. 

What about the audience for the marathon?  Great art, after all, demands an audience.  Art has three basic types of audiences: 1) non-participants; 2) critics; and 3) other participants.  Many marathon courses have limited access for non-participants to view the runners.  Outside of a few courses along the way, most of the observers gather at the finish line to watch the culmination of the runner’s efforts.  So much of the beauty and inspiration, however, is found along the course, as runners take that initial step all the way through the last.  But who observes these breathtaking moments of glory along those parts of the trail where no one lines the trail to watch?  The other runners, fellow artists, watch and draw strength from the herculean efforts and athletic abilities of one another.  The runners experience the splendor and magnificence when, after pain and exhaustion has set in; each foot continues to follow in order. 

Do you wonder if a marathon is art?  Watch the faces of those lining the finish line as they watch the runners cross.  You will see looks of amazement as they watch the first and early runners come across in unbelievably short amounts of time.  They catch a glimpse of the devotion, ability and strength required to cover 26.2 miles in 2 hours and 17 minutes.  They see the look of grim determination as these elite runners having executed their training and race strategy well, finish.  Does this call forth emotion?  Is it beautiful to watch them stride across in good form, doing something that seems so unreasonable for a human to attempt?  Absolutely.  Watch the observers’ faces as each runner comes across.  You will see the observers begin to tear up as they see the pain and determination in the face, step and mere shuffle of each runner.  Watch their faces as the clock passes the five-hour mark or the six-hour mark, as the final runners, those that ran on sheer mental determination or for a personal cause, force themselves to cross the line.  Watch the anticipation and the turning heads as the approach of a runner with special circumstances is announced.

Think of the inspiration and the emotion invoked by observing and experiencing a marathon.  How many in the audience, observers and participants, are overcome by an impulse to take on a new challenge or to finish something difficult?  How many find a sense of sympathy or empathy for sufferings and trials of a friend, a family member or a mere acquaintance?  How many observers of a marathon find themselves riding a bus to a start line for their own marathon months or a year later?

As I hit mile 18 on my first marathon three years ago, my quads and calf muscles began to cramp and lock up.  To finish I had to alternate between limping and shuffling for the last 8 miles.  Looking down at my legs I knew this would be my first and last marathon.  If I could finish, I would have no reason to run another one.  I saw others in a similar plight as myself.  I could tell which of them were going to give up; which were going to sit down and wait to be picked up, feeling they had given it their best.  The same thought danced center stage in my mind.  As the next few miles passed by so slowly, I noticed something.  Many of those I thought would or should drop out, continued to press forward.  I’m not a small guy.  In fact, I probably should lose about 20-30 pounds to be more effective at running.  At around mile 21 I watched a guy pass me at a good pace, a runner who outweighed me by probably 40 pounds or more.  Others continued to find a way to keep moving.  I found that there was a group of us who took turns passing one another. 

The strength and perseverance of the other runners was the message passed through the medium of their motion.  It inspired me to continue.  Their art helped me to finish.  As I crossed the finish line I felt the tears well up in my eyes, both for what I had just accomplished and what so many others had done as well.  Walking into the winners area and feeling the medal placed around my neck, I knew I would run another marathon, even if it was only for the honor of seeing and experiencing the art first hand.

Since that first marathon I have completed a total of four along with other distance relays and races.  My own art, if it qualifies to be called that, is nothing special.  I doubt that many people feel an overwhelming sense of inspiration or emotion when they see me.  Well, the blood seeping through my white shirt on my last marathon, did call forth some emotional reactions from volunteers along the course.  The art of other runners continues to inspire me and pull me into races.  My father has run three marathons and a number of other races with me.  Often he runs with some type of injury.  He has finished each race.  His canvas, while perhaps not beautiful in the traditional sense, has inspired others to run marathons.

Is every marathoner an artist?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But I like the following quote by Mary Wittenberg:

"A marathoner is a marathoner regardless of time. Virtually everyone who tries the marathon has put in training over months, and it is that exercise and that commitment, physical and mental, that gives meaning to the medal, not just the day’s effort, be it fast or slow.  It's all in conquering the challenge."

- Jarad Van Wagoner

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