16 Oct Running in the Streets

Cheering woke me Saturday morning as marathoners rounded the four-mile mark in front of our house. A crowd of well-wishers stood at the turn, among them a guy in a chicken costume and three women dressed as old-time house-fraus — the embodiment of Baltimore’s down-home, hon’ culture. A crowd of children from Margaret Brent Elementary were waving banners and chanting, “Margaret Brent!” Somebody was blowing a police whistle. A TV news copter chopped overhead. Dogs were barking. The noise was at times so loud, a few people clapped their hands over their ears.

Click on this link to play a marathon soundscape (2 mins. 24 secs.) and re-create the giddy mood: Baltimore marathon, mile 4 marker, 2008

The professional runners had already sprinted through long before the well-wishers had positioned themselves at our corner, 28th and Saint Paul. They had kicked past at a breath-stealing 12 miles an hour. We were now watching the middle-pack of runners, the average folk who jog the course. From the shadows of our looming brick row-house and into yellow columns of early sunlight, they came in waves. They were delighted by the reception our crowd gave them. Though it was a cool morning and only a short distance gone, some runners looked beleaguered already. I sympathized.

I used to be a distance runner but never a marathoner. Ten miles was just right for me, though sometimes I went fifteen. I don’t believe any exercise matches the exhilaration that comes of carrying oneself at a fast pace on foot. Running is the most primal thrill. We were born to run, at least for short distances, mostly after something to eat — or away from something that would eat us. When we run, some part of our primitive self must remember this. When we run fast, when we feel the power in our legs and the resilience in our lungs, some part of our mind goes crazy with joy. Endorphin production, scientists tell us. But it’s more than that.

Though tragic, certainly, it should not surprise us when a runner is snatched by a mountain lion in the rocky highlands of the far West –- as happens about once a year. Runner and cat are playing out a contest as old as our respective species. At bottom, the joy of running is about getting away. When we can no longer run or when we’re stopped dead, we are — at first — disappointed. It’s like your car jerking to an abrupt stop, then you realize you’re out of gas and a long way from a station. What? Is that it? Is that all? That’s how I felt when my knee (just one) gave out. So now, like so many, I am sidelined. Somteims I dream of running. Often I’m running up the steepest hills at remarkable speed.

If you hope to get somewhere fast during Baltimore’s marathon, forget it. One year, when I had to get to the airport on marathon morning, I found myself diverted in a two-mile backup, going the opposite direction from the airport. Fortunately, I was driving Jill’s four-wheel drive. I gunned the SUV over a traffic island, then raced through the back-routes of the city’s worst neighborhoods, where there’s never any traffic, and made my plane just barely. Another time I had to run an errand on marathon morning (I guess it was important, though I can’t recall what it was). On my return, I was a half a block from my house – I could see my garage a few car lengths away – when a cop turned me back. “But I live there – right there!” I pointed. He shook his head in regret. “Sorry, sir.” The street would not be open until 2:00 P.M. It was now 11:00 A.M. “But I just live right THERE!” I repeated. Again he shook his head. “Move along, sir.” I was so incensed, I gunned the car to the next intersection, tried an abrupt turn, then slammed into somebody’s Volvo station wagon – an accident that raised by insurance rate by twenty percent.

Nowadays, I mark my calendar and plan on staying home on marathon morning. But why I thought I could sleep through the race this year, I don’t know. By the way, our neighborhood was voted one of the best in the country for its diversity and civic activism. It’s a very cool place to live, I agree. Here’s the link:
Great Places in America