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April 18, 2016 | by

The loneliness of the long-distance runner.

Gerard Coté wins the 1940 Boston Marathon.

Gérard Côté wins the 1940 Boston Marathon.

In the early 1970s, John Tarrant, a British ultramarathoner who set world records in the forty- and hundred-mile distances, suffered a hemorrhaging stomach ulcer that occasionally sent him to the hospital for tests and blood transfusions. Tarrant despised the interruptions to his training schedule, and during at least one stay, he ducked into the bathroom, changed into running gear beneath his hospital gown, and snuck outside for a quick five-miler. As Bill Jones recounts in his book The Ghost Runner, Tarrant sacrificed everything for his sport—his work, his family, and, evidently, his better judgment. 

Today is the 120th Boston Marathon, and I’d wager that nearly every runner in the race would understand Tarrant’s impulse. Training for long-distance races breeds a restless need to elevate the heart rate, score an endorphin hit, and achieve what Tarrant called that “magnificent feeling of well being.” Running begets more running, an insidious cycle that can become, over time, a game of high-mileage brinkmanship that blurs the line between dedication and obsession. At the peak of his training, Tarrant was logging 180 miles a week—an addiction, no doubt, but a healthy addiction, at least according to the runners. (The doctors aren’t convinced: by 2015, running-related cardiology concerns had crystallized into something called the excessive-endurance hypothesis; google the phrase and “scarring of the heart” comes up a lot.)

The best literary accounts of running attempt to understand what pushes the athlete past pleasure into the darker realms of suffering. The culprit is usually some deep, even metaphysical need to do battle with the normal order of things. Consider, for example, Alan Sillitoe’s short story “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” The story’s protagonist is an impoverished adolescent who, after being arrested for the pathetic crime of robbing a bakery, is sent to a Borstal, a British prison school. Parentless and institutionalized, the teenager, named Smith, starts running to release an inner hydrant of anger.

Smith shares an uncanny resemblance to Tarrant, who started doing ultramarathons in 1959, the year Sillitoe’s story was published. Tarrant was born in 1932, and his mother died when he was seven years old. After his father decided he couldn’t raise him, Tarrant languished in an English detention center for kids. His adolescent frustration found expression in boxing before he, too, started running through the streets of Buxton, as if he were trying to outpace a fate that he couldn’t shake. Both Smith and Tarrant were trapped in poverty during an era of postwar British prosperity; both labored hard despite cruel working conditions; and both explicitly defined their identities against an Oxbridge elite that used its status to hold the working class in place.

For Smith as for Tarrant, running became a weapon, the only means to survive a world that was intent on bending their backs to someone else’s whim. “Cunning is what counts in this life,” Smith says, a sentiment that Tarrant might have appreciated. For most of his running career, Tarrant was banned from amateur races because he had accepted a small fee as a teenage boxer. To skirt the rules enforced by the suits he despised, he often disguised himself in a trench coat in order to sneak into races at the last second. Tarrant ran past pleasure because the suffering on the other end was the only experience he could call his own.

Most of the thirty thousand men and women who lined up at the starting line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, this morning—and this includes me—will struggle under no such burdens. According to one survey, roughly three-quarters of the regular distance runners in the United States hold a college degree. Our median household income exceeds seventy-five thousand dollars. Ample leisure time allows us to run an average of 208 days a year, and more than twenty miles a week, which we do on the three pairs of miraculously ergonomic shoes we buy each year. When injuries occur, as they inevitably do, we enjoy access to the most specialized health care on earth. Oppression and disaffection, in other words, will be in short supply among the well-massaged overachievers who will battle the Newton Hills on Patriots’ Day. Statistically speaking, Boston’s runners are more Oxbridge elite than John Tarrant. When you consider us on paper, we have no logical reason to be here.

So what are we doing? A possible explanation begins with the suggestion that your average marathoner is, for whatever reason, uncomfortable with comfort. It may be difficult to read in the slackened face of a runner approaching the finish line after twenty-six miles. But on some level, no matter how establishmentarian in demeanor off the course, he’s delivering a very pointed fuck off to something or someone. Take the most placid and seemingly well-adjusted marathoner and push her on this point and you’ll eventually find some nugget of rage, the same sort of horrible, repressed discontent that kept Tarrant running mile after mile as his ulcer leaked into his gut. It’s this quality, more than any other, that keeps runners loyal to their cult.

The object of Smith’s resistance was the Borstal’s condescending authority figures, who took an opportunistic pride in his talent. At the end of Sillitoe’s story, Smith stops running just before finishing the big race. He relinquishes his lead to spite the smug officials who had banked the Borstal’s reputation on his anticipated win. “ ‘Run’, they were shouting in their posh voices,” so Smith stops running. Tarrant, for his part, took the opposite tack, albeit for similar reasons. After crashing a race, he would taunt the pasty race organizers to catch him if they could, while his fellow runners, loyal to the core, surrounded him like a womb and delivered his skeletal frame to another unofficial finish.

The trade-off for submitting voluntarily to the pain of a marathon—which really can be otherworldly—is the opportunity to transcend your anger, to step outside normal life and build a unique narrative out of a sanctioned act of rebellion. For several hours, the long-distance runner becomes a sober and well-hydrated flaneur carousing through city streets, absorbing floods of impressions and assembling the images and thoughts that will animate her post-run account. All the while she can be assured that her story will not be scooped: marathoners can’t plagiarize.

If you ever have the chance to hear marathoners discuss a race, lean in and listen. It’s a unique form of communication. The only thing it compares to, I’ve found, is two readers discovering that they love the same impossibly obscure book—that they, as Emerson put it, “see the same truth.” When the Boston Marathon ends, there will be tens of thousands of runners marked by a shared experience, even if each runner will ultimately be alone, a novella unto himself. The damage will have been worth it.

James McWilliams lives in Austin, Texas.