Walking around the track at Middlebury College one day last summer, I ran into my friend Jon Cormier of Bristol, or more accurately, he ran by me. He was kind enough to stop and chat with me for a while, at my pace.
Turns out he was training for a race, and not a local fun run, but the “Vermont 50” at Mt. Ascutney in September. That’s a 50-mile race, up and down and around the mountain, with 9,000 feet of climbing over its route.
“It was a great race!” he reported the other day. He finished sixth in his age group, 13th overall among about 500 competitors.
Since that summer conversation, I have been thinking about what it takes to push oneself to run that hard, that far, and endure the pain it inevitably involves.
In my younger days, I considered running a marathon, but as Mark Twain supposedly said about exercise generally, I lay down until the impulse went away.
The idea struck me as excessive and foolhardy, even masochistic. I understood that it was a challenge, a chance to stretch oneself, do something hard, but really … 26 miles?
Why do people do it?
My daughter Jane ran in the Boston Marathon when she was a senior in college, as an academic exercise. She had hoped to do her senior thesis in anthropology: “I thought the Boston Marathon embodied Emile Durkheim’s idea of ‘collective consciousness.’”
She still runs. “I’m happier when I’m fit,” she said. “I work out problems in my head. I’ve run on six continents and running has allowed me to get out and see things that I would never otherwise have seen.”
My lifelong friend Gary Margolis from Cornwall ran the Boston Marathon because as a kid he saw Boston Marathon legend Johnny Kelly running through his hometown of Brookline, Mass. “Imagining running Boston allowed meto train in three Vermont seasons, running Addison County roads,” he said.
Middlebury College cross-country coach Nicole Wilkerson has run seven marathons and has cracked the three-hour mark (that’s very fast). “I like running marathons,” she said, “because of the challenge of the distance and the dedication it takes to train in order to do well in them. The commitment to the training is fun. I like to work hard.”
Nicole’s colleague, Lacrosse Hall of Fame coach Missy Foote, has run five marathons and spoke of “the sheer joy of running long distances where thoughts float free from in and out of one’s head and problems seem to solve themselves during the course of the run. It’s very hard to recapture this in any other part of my life.”
Missy’s husband Dick also appreciates the meditative benefits of running: “Corny as it may sound, for me running disengages the mind a while and allows me the gift of just ‘being,’ a state that carries over, even after the run is finished.”
This is a theme: the challenge in running the long-distance race itself and the joy and satisfaction in the daily preparation for it.
My contemporary Peter Lebenbaum picked up the fever just as the running boom commenced in the early 1970s. He had the “misfortune” of running a two-hour, 36-minute Boston Marathon the first time out, and “I was hooked.”
He went on to run very competitively — a 2:31 in Boston and a 2:35 in New York. He ran a 2:29:52, his personal best, in New Orleans and finished seventh in the Vermont Marathon when it was held in the Champlain Islands.
“I always ran,” he explained, “even as a kid in elementary school. Or I walked or rode my bike. Time alone was a solace to me, a way of not being at home.”
In his competitive career, he found particular pleasure in his 35-mile training runs in a park near his home at that time in Buffalo.
Now, in his 60s, Peter enjoys 20-mile hikes in the woods, though he came out of retirement a few years back to win his age group (60-to-70) in the Vermont City Marathon. “When I turn 70, I may try it again,” he said.
Jon Cormier, too, runs for the emotional benefits. “It’s a way for me to fight anxiety, to stop being uptight. I need a ‘time out,’ to run away for a while from the things that are freaking me out.”
He loves his long runs of two or three hours, and the TAM (Trail Around Middlebury) is one of his favorite routes. “You can see all the different eco-systems of Vermont. I love to cover the ground, being outside.”
An ace baseball and basketball player when he was at Middlebury College, he is at heart a competitor, who has run five marathons and now this ultra-marathon. He believes the longer distance is more suited to him. He thinks some day he’ll run a 100-miler.
Old friend Hieu Nguyen has moved from running marathons to even longer distances. “Ultras give me the opportunity to relax and enjoy solitude,” he reported.
“It is quite an experience to run for five hours or more in the wilderness without any distractions, devoid of static. The only sound I can hear while moving is my own breathing. Pretty cool.”
Five-hour runs, 50 to 100 mile races: All this talk about running has worn me out. I think I’ll go lie down for a while.