Bird’s Eye View: The hardest sport

If you flew over Cambridge, Mass. this past Sunday, you would have seen a few thousand people running. Their legs beat time through the pelting rain, as they snaked along the Charles River. Without knowledge of the concept of marathons, perhaps you might have ascribed the mass movement to some form of religious practice. After all, it couldn’t be a migration as the runners started and ended in the same location. Why else would thousands of people get up before the sun to run in a 13-mile long misshapen circle?

I never had much respect for long distance runners. In high school, I participated in purely anaerobic sports — wrestling and sprinting. In both of those sports, there are other athletes either directly or indirectly competing with you. In long distance running, however, competitors often race against their own personal records more than any particular opponent. This makes long distance running less competitive, I thought naively.

Barring an overtime period, a wrestling match lasts six minutes. The 200-meter sprint is well over after 30 seconds. The Cambridge Half Marathon was capped at three hours. Sure, doing anything for that long can be mentally taxing, as long hours in the Tisch Library can attest to, but how hard can something really be if people are capable of doing it for that long? Pretty hard it turns out.

Last spring I entered the Barcelona Half Marathon five days in advance of the race, with no preparation whatsoever, and showed up the morning of the race having barely stretched. I had been training in jiu-jitsu fairly frequently and arrogantly imagined the race would be easy for me as a then 20-year-old man in decent shape. Predictably, I did not do well. I was shocked at how long the race took me and amazed at the sheer difficulty and pain involved in moving my legs afterwards. Runners much younger, older, bigger and smaller passed me with little difficulty. They had something I did not — respect for the sport.

It turns out that, just like any other sport, long distance running takes immense preparation to perform at a high level. Diet, training mileage and wearing proper attire are all controllable factors that serious runners put immense thought and time into. Additionally, unlike wrestling, which takes place indoors, there is the added factor of weather. Freezing cold air burns any exposed skin. Pelting rain converts courses into muddy messes and weighs down layers of drenched clothing. The relentless sun dehydrates and discourages. Any wind exacerbates the existing conditions.

My running hubris resulted in my learning a very valuable lesson: every sport is worthy of respect in its own way. Long-distance running is physically and mentally taxing, just as other sports are, but in its own way. Athletes such as marathoner Meb Keflezighi merit just as much respect for conquering their sports as the Tom Bradys and LeBron Jameses of the world do. I intend to train for all my future races, and to all the long-distance runners of the world, I’d like to say thank you and I’m sorry.