This is what Haiti must have looked like.
Articles of clothing were strewn about a road already littered with debris. Crumpled bodies lay all around me. Big men with guns tried to hold back throngs of people eager for blood, while aid workers in tents and along the road passed out basic necessities: water, vitamin packs and simple medicine. The victims accepted with slurred grunts.
Marathons are a little glimpse at the Third World, which is probably why Kenyans are so good at them. And that’s just part of the draw for the men and women of America, whose ancestors manifested their destiny, took flight and invented mayonnaise. When there is nothing left to discover, masochism has its allure.
Fun runners are the only people alive whose hobby never brings a smile; almost all of their pleasure derives from the tools of the trade — stop watches that belong in rap videos, doo-hickies that belong in A Brave New World and sweatbands of every awful color. It would be as if a ship-in-a-bottle maker beamed at his glue, but frowned throughout his ordeal. Maybe that is a bad example. Regardless, skinny men and vascular women, some 50,000, curled their lips at Chicago’s McCormick Convention Center for the race’s Health and Fitness Expo. On display were hundreds of the latest energy boosters, crafted by chemical engineers who told their parents they would be doctors when they left for college and ended up plastic surgeons for your insides where the harm is less evident and certainly not FDA approved.
And that is why everyone—myself especially—was smiling. I consumed, by my count, 19 different samples of energy boosters—drinks, gels, pastes, gums, yogurts, shots—in little more than an hour. The marathon’s complimentary poster probably had some form of B12, a vitamin popular among energy companies and mid-level drug dealers, in it. It was all energy all the time. Hardcore. (EDITOR’S NOTE: these are the author’s actual notes).
It was part Meth lab, part day-spa. But why limit ourselves: it was a day-spa for the perpetually neurotic—the health obsessed body worshippers, who could use some meth, but prefer distance running because they love their teeth and hate smiling.
Not that you had to enter the center with a compulsion for high octane, fast acting health. Three protein bars and a couple glasses of energy paste later, you could recreate a Monet, while running on a treadmill. Or keep trying until your body gave out—good practice for a marathon.
Marketers have a funny way of pushing products under the guise of health and fitness. They sell protein bars by the dozen, packaged in glossy plastic—generally in shades of gold, brown and black or some pastel. Bold serif letters categorize nouns that only recently came to be associated with sustenance: Power, Energy, Endurance. The brand names are unrivaled in their presumption. You don’t, after all, see pre-natal vitamins called Preggers, Gravid, Deliverance. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Does it matter as long as it’s good protein?
Amid all this foul tasting energy, how does one stand out? Salesmanship, pretty girls, videos of runners, perspiration aglow? Yes, yes and yes. But the pitch has also changed. Now that going green is a hit, companies try to hawk their energy products as the most natural, an odd claim from those swearing to artificially inseminate your insides with protein. One man pitched cubes of mint chocolate energy wrapped in swamp green and black gloss. The dose was smaller than a nickel, but cost eighty of them.
“It’s not going to be jolty like that other junk; this is natural…caffeine based,” the goateed pitchman said without the slightest sense of irony.
The least gimmicky of the exhibitions was also the smallest. One is the loneliest number, as they say, and Fred Lechuga of Hinckley Springs, the only water company I saw, was the loneliest exhibitor at the expo. He must have figured people already knew what water is and why it is necessary, which is why Fred didn’t have video blaring of athletes hooked up to EKG’s. Fred talked pricing as I consumed water cone after water cone to drive Edgar Allen Poe from my chest. He must have figured I was distracted, or at least jittery yet harmless. He looked tired amidst the expo’s novelty. My Northeastern manners compelled me to offer him the next most natural product at the expo, but I didn’t want to insult the man. How was I to tell him that water wouldn’t be a hit at the convention for the very reason it should have been. Water can only sustain. People are chasing something different, modern science’s purple dragon, which will take them the 26.2 miles to the finish through ingestion alone. Improvement through consumption, it’s as American as credit card debt.
Fitness cuisine is taking on the look of the cell phone battles of the early 21st century. Smaller sizes, higher costs, maximum efficiency. Runners no longer want to peel a banana, let alone a wrapper, so products straight out of Vonnegut are taking over the industry. Energy gels are the most popular innovation in the distance crowd. The goop is served in one ounce packets and is said to provide whole minutes of energy boost with minimum effort. Tear away a small glossy paper tab, squeeze the gruel into your mouth, run faster.
Those packets littered a park which just 23 months before hosted President Barack Obama’s victory celebration.
It is hard to describe the aroma of a starting line. When I was nursing my hamstring back to shape three days after the race the AP chronicled the tribulations of a Montana man who was sucked down a mile long stretch of sewage pipe. I found myself nodding in agreement. “I’ve been there brother.” The pre-race is a half-mile backlog of body odor; brightly-dressed, unshowered masses stand idle amidst sludge and trash. Facing temperatures in the 80’s, everyone abandoned civilized hygiene, figuring they could blame that smell on the person next to them. When 44,999 people do this, it is a problem–like a high tax nation that excuses citizens from personal responsibility with the dole. France comes to mind.
“Thank you” and “excuse me” are alien terms along a course where bumps, brushes and collision are inevitable. Each step of the race is littered with paper cups, track suits and, at the start line, a full-on velour walker that must have cost $500, which shows you just how spoiled we marathoners are. But take away the $135 registration fee and a marathon is as egalitarian as can be in terms of poor etiquette. You would expect better from a group of mostly affluent Caucasians, who would tsk-tsk you for recycling your cigarette onto a curb. When you are chasing bodily perfection you can set aside your meddling politics for a couple hours.
The course itself encourages indecent behavior. A half mile from the starting corral laid the garage level of the Fairmont Chicago, an underpass where bellhops cheered along runners, who, having drank too much water in the pre-race, relieved themselves like untrained terriers on the hotel walls. They never stopped cheering. The marauding hordes spread pestilence and bodily fluids along the 26 mile course, letting all who saw know that this was their land at the moment.
Fifteen of the world’s finest specimens, each elected by an athletic club based upon proven physical prowess, participated in the first Chicago Marathon on September 23, 1905. More than 100,000 mid-westerners—ten percent of the city’s population—turned out to watch New Yorker Louis Marks get what was coming to him, as he melted down with just a couple miles to go.
One-hundred and five years later, equivocation has taken hold. Elite athletes have turned into forty-five thousand everymen (and women), including pack-a-day smokers who run on a dare. The Chicago Marathon does not require qualifying times, meaning anyone with $135 can participate, manageable even in this recession. Race organizers turn these fees into overripe bananas, thousands of gallons of water and Gatorade, the energy gels every runner is now addicted to and, most importantly, self-esteem—the kind you haven’t seen since grammar school soccer.
In 2010, more than thirty-six thousand sets of withered legs, chapped lips and skeletal figures crossed the finish line, a steady improvement from the seven, who completed the course in 1905. Marathons may look and smell like American public schools, but at least they churn out accomplishment. I was among them, finishing at 4:20, a fulfillment which left me gasping for air and craving a free beer. They instead gave me a medal—a silver one. The same hue as the one given to Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede (pronounced: nīs trī) for his 2:06:42 performance. I was surrounded by empty eyes and chests brimming with the rings of semi-accomplishment. Whoever said second place was the first loser probably had the marathon in mind.
For all Kebede’s accomplishment, his years of training and self-discipline, there was a Joe-Nobody with a healthy tobacco habit and a couple jogs under his belt wearing a medal too. The only difference between us is that I got to take my medal back to a high-rise and watch football in high-definition, while he flew back to Ethiopia.
His eighteen-second superior, Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru (pronounced: jəst kȯl mē sam) won his second straight marathon in a down-to-the-wire sprint. Wanjiru is the best distance runner in sport today, setting the record for fastest marathons at China’s 2008 Olympics and the 2009 Chicago Marathon. But you already know that from his Wheaties boxes and daytime talk show appearances over the year. That didn’t happen? Oh, well surely he was celebrated after his second straight marathon title.
But you would be wrong and there are 9,000 reasons why.
“Chicago marathon runners show grit, even if they don’t finish.” The big block letters on the front page of the next day’s Chicago Tribune mangled the word “grit” so badly, Jeff Bridges decided to step in and put it out of its misery. What is most depressing is we cannot even blame this on our hippie parents, like we can gay marriage, cocaine or “feelings.” This sissy-footed equivocating is squarely from our generation. In 1992, when the Me Generation was just taking to suspenders and $200 haircuts, the Tribune recapped the marathon with “Top Marathon Finishers Show True Grit.” The headline continued inside the page: “30,000 nobodies let down supporters.” This is how you’re supposed to recap a marathon.
Wanjiru all but clutched the distance running title of 2010 with his victory and the Tribune wrote about a 300 pound Californian who called it quits at Mile 17. Will anyone notice actual bodily perfection — or will we be busy admiring our own chase and peeing on the Waldorf?
Bill Haurton is a cultural critic at Crooked Copy and enjoys cheap alliteration. A polo enthusiast since his youth, Bill’s parents mistakenly bought him a pogo stick, which he uses to put down injured horses. Comment on the story/protest horse euthanasia? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.