Monday, October 27, 2008

Marathoning Through Movies

Yesterday morning, just before 8 am, I stood packed shoulder-to-shoulder with nearly 30,000 others. Some of us laughed. Some cheered. Some made idle conversation. Some twitched nervously. It was like the moment in Gladiator just before Maximus and his fellow rookie fighters enter the arena for the first time: for all those wearing looks of stone-cold determination, there were others just trying to keep from peeing themselves.

This was the start of the Marine Corps Marathon, the 33rd running of the race that begins near Arlington Cemetery in Virginia and snakes through Georgetown and the National Mall in Washington, DC, before ending back in Virginia at the Marine Corps Memorial (often mistakenly called the Iwo Jima Memorial). I was about to run 26.2 miles – for the first time in my life. An on-and-off recreational runner the past four years, I’d spent the past 18 weeks following a regimented running plan designed to have me ready to go the distance on race day. Now it was time to test myself.

I was excited and nervous. The longest single run in my training was 22 miles. The last 4.2 would be uncharted territory. I knew I could and (barring injury) would finish, but how well? How fast? How strong? Throughout training, I imagined that finishing a marathon would provide me with a crazed thrill of success akin to that exhibited by Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence when finally storming Akaba after days suffering across the “sun’s anvil” in Lawrence Of Arabia. But did it? What follows is my marathon experience through movies …

Starting Line: Runners are packed on a highway according to time of expected finish. My main goal is to run the marathon in under 3:45, but I’m shooting to run it in just under 3:30 – roughly an 8-minute mile average. That puts me in the first third of the competitors. Behind me, the phalanx of runners stretches as far as the eye can see. I’d say the crowd resembles shots from recent battle epics like Alexander or Kingdom Of Heaven, but the key difference is that we’re all real. No special effects here. Alas, no stunt doubles either.

Mile 1: Climbing through Rosslyn, the course takes us near the parking garage where the real Bob Woodward had secret night meetings with Deep Throat. The proximity is enough to make any relatively sane movie fan ask: “Why am I doing this instead of sitting at home and watching All The President’s Men?” It’s a question that has no good answer.

Miles 2-3: These pass with the blur of an action sequence in one of the Paul Greengrass-directed Jason Bourne movies. Approaching the fourth mile, I’m not quite sure what has happened or how it’s happened. I only know I’m here.

Mile 4: For me, this is the 2001: A Space Odyssey checkpoint: Thus far there’s been primitive grunting, and 30 minutes have gone by, but in the grand scheme of things we’re just getting started.

Mile 5: I cross into Washington, DC, via Key Bridge, which is shrouded in a misty fog that reminds me of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo tiptoes out of the Millennium Falcon to explore what turns out to be the innards of a giant space slug. It hits me that when Han was done doing that, he got to make out with Princess Leia. When I’m done with the fifth mile, I get to run 21.2 more. Advantage: Han.

Mile 7: The mist remains thick over a tree-lined street during an uphill climb toward the sun. Ahead of me, I see nothing but the silhouettes of runners bobbing and swaying in eerie beauty against the morning glow. If Terrence Malick and The New World cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki teamed up to make a running film, they’d be all over this shot. I take a mental picture to savor it.

Mile 9: Looping back into Georgetown, below the campus of the university, we’re not far from multiple shooting locations for The Exorcist. With only about 70 minutes invested on the course, I’m feeling great. But I wonder: Will hitting the inevitable wall feel like taking a Father Karras header down the stairs? Will there be Regan-esque projectile vomiting at some point? Will cramping cause me to have to spider-walk toward the finish line? We’ll see.

Mile 13: If you started watching Titanic when I crossed the starting line, you just saw the ship crash into the iceberg. The movie is just over halfway through. In terms of mileage, I’m not quite to the race’s midpoint yet. Wow.

Mile 18: Have you ever tried to drink from a paper cup while running? It’s an art form, and I’m only mildly proficient at it. Some runners elect to walk through the water stations, but I like to keep moving, for fear that if I stop I won’t be able to start again. Until the water station at the 17.5-mile mark, I’ve consumed fluids flawlessly. This time, though, with fatigue setting in, I get stuck between a breath and a gulp and have water go down the wrong pipe. It occurs to me that this has to be how Walter Donovan felt when he chose poorly and drank out of the wrong chalice at the end of Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade. Thankfully, my face doesn’t wither into sand.

Mile 19: I’m more than 2 minutes under my dream goal pace of 3:30, but I’m starting to get fatigued. I’ve been running for about 2.5 hours, which is kind of sadistic. And, keep in mind, I’ve paid to do this! Still, give me the choice between running 18 miles or watching Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, and I’ll take the 18-mile run any day. Priorities reassessed, I push onward.

Mile 20: In terms of effort, experienced runners say that the 20-mile mark is the halfway point. In a nutshell, the human body is built to run up to that distance. After that, you’re in survival mode. Fittingly, as I battle into my 21st mile, Titanic-watchers are seeing the stern of the ship bobbing like a cork. It’s about to go under. Am I?

Miles 21-22: The race starts to resemble Groundhog Day. A mile ago, it felt like things were heading toward a conclusion. Now, it’s as if it will never end. Mile after painful mile. Not aiding my enthusiasm is a woman near the 22-mile mark who, having obviously never run a marathon, yells out the dreaded, “You’re almost there!” I glare at her like Bill Murray’s Phil Conners sizing up Stephen Tobolowsky’s Ned Ryerson.

Mile 23: Approaching and pushing through the 23rd mile, it’s all pain and no pleasure. Round about the time I reach the 23.5-mile mark, Titanic is over and I’m wishing the race was, too. The only thing more ghastly than the thought of the upcoming miles is the thought of ever watching The Happening again. Along the course, a band plays the “Gonna Fly Now” theme from Rocky. At this point my stride has less in common with Rocky’s famous race up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and more closely resembles his awkward ice skating with Adrian.

Mile 24: I have my Austin Powers moment. For a good 18 miles everything was groovy, baby. But not long after that I lost my mojo. And right about now I feel like I’m carrying Fat Bastard on my back. With 2 miles left, I’m still on 3:30 pace, but I’m fading fast. It occurs to me that my initial vision for the conclusion of the race was at least half right. To reach Akaba, I’m going to have to suffer through the sun’s anvil. But I’ve got no energy for a triumphant charge. I’m on damage control.

Mile 26: Want to know the difference between how a marathoner feels in the first mile of a race vs. the last? For the first, think of Charlize Theron stretched out in all her naked beauty in The Cider House Rules. Then think of Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuoronos in Monster. Got it? I’m pretty sure I resemble the latter. I’m slower than The Postman. I’m as tired as Robin Williams. And my attempt to reach the starting line in 3:30 is now as hopeless as George Lucas. But I’m at peace with that. With 2 miles to go I had a coin-flip’s chance at reaching my ultimate time goal, and I lost. Oh well. The final miles of a marathon are as ruthless as Anton Chigurh. No shame there.

Finish Line: Fighting for every inch, I end the race in 3:35.11. The feeling of crossing the finish line offers none of the glory of storming Akaba. Instead, it’s closer to Andy Dufresne’s crawl-through-a-sewage-pipe prison-break in The Shawshank Redemption. I’m elated, proud and glad that it’s over, yet I’m immediately distracted by the stench of those final shitty miles. The good news is that the shit quickly washes off. The achievement is forever.

It was all worth it. Fade out.


hokahey said...

What an awesome achievement and what a memorable depiction of your challenge. With the vivid picture you present of your run and all the great movie allusions (my favorite was the Charlize Theron comparison), reading this post was more entertaining and more memorable than watching "The Happening" ... or "The MIracle at St. Anna" ... or "Indiana Jones" ... or... Has this year in film been that bad? Who cares when the Cooler runs a marathon! Congratulations.

Mark said...

Jason, I wondered how you would manage to work your marathon report into the framework of The Cooler. Not to worry. I agree with hokahey: What a clever concept and a memorable post.

"As tired as Robin Williams." I love that!

Congratulations on an amazing run, as well as the continued excellence of your blog.

Fox said...

Major congratulations Jason! Having a mother and a wife that ran marathons, I know how special an accomplishment it is. Well done!

It was great that the movies in your head helped you get through the race. This is a clever piece of real-life writing.

Evan Derrick said...

Excellent piece here, Jason. I have never run a marathon and don't know if I ever will - I think I'll just climb Mt. Everest instead.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks all. And since two non-commenters have asked me now: The "shit" references are strictly metaphorical.

Yes, runners punishing themselves sometimes experience the other kind of "shitty" problems. But I'm pleased to say that wasn't the case for me.

No "Sex In The City" disasters for this guy.