Registration opened this week for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, and, same as every year, one of my friends asked me if I planned to run.
And same as every year I said no.
I’ve got nothing against the Chicago Marathon, or any other marathon, for that matter. I think they’re great. I think it’s inspiring to stand on the end of my block, cup of coffee in one hand, cowbell in the other, and cheer the runners as they go by. They’re a hearty bunch and I applaud them.
But I choose not join them.
It’s not that I couldn’t run a marathon. I’m fairly confident that I could. I run a lot. If I had to, I could probably lace up my shoes right now, with no training, and run 20 miles. For sure I could do 15.
My reason for avoiding this marathon and all other marathons is simple: It’s too popular.
Last year, 38,535 people ran the Chicago Marathon and 37,455 finished. Both numbers were records, and they’re impressive figures. In this age characterized by obesity and sloth, 38,535 people set out to run 26.2 miles, and an astonishing 97 percent of them finished. A 97 percent completion rate? For four or five hours of pain followed by several days of aching joints? It’s almost enough to make a cynic believe there’s hope for America, after all.
So why don’t I want to be in that number? It’s not about the runners, or about the race, or even the pain or the boredom or the long hours of training. It’s about me, plain and simple. I don’t like to go with the crowd. I’m a contrarian. I’m the kind of guy who refuses on principle to see the movie that’s topping the box office charts. Once a book hits the bestseller list, I won’t read it. I’d rather go thirsty than drink Bud.
So when I see 38,000 people jogging past me on marathon day—some of them fast, some of them slow, some of them in Halloween costumes, some of the juggling—my instinct is not to run but to run away. Actually, marathon day is one of my favorite days to go for a long, leisurely jog on the lakefront, away from the crowds.
How strong is my contrary streak? So strong, that I had an idea today while I was out on a run. What if I signed up for the marathon, just to prove to myself I could do it, but stopped short of the finish. Instead of running 26.2 miles I would run 26.1.
The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. I liked it so much I almost smiled (which I never do when I run, because, while I like the sense of accomplishment that running brings, I don’t care much for the running itself). I turned it over in my head. I could start a movement, a rebellion. I could get thousands of people to join me in committing to 26.1.
We could train, beginning now, not merely for the great distance we will need to run but for the great discipline that will be required to see the finish line and to refrain from crossing it. To get in shape for that moment, we will leave the last bite of steak on our plates, eschew the last morsel of chocolate brownie, and satisfy our sexual partners without regard for our own satisfaction.
There will be no medals for us. There will be no bragging rights. We will donate our race T-shirts to Goodwill rather than trying to pass as marathoners. We will not need those things because we, the people of the 26.1, we will know our own strength.
I have a notion what some of you are thinking right now. You’re thinking I’ve got a loose screw, or that I’ve got too much time on my hands, or that I simply enjoy being a pain in the ass. All these things are most likely true. Anyway, I’ve certainly heard them before.
That’s OK. I understand that this kind of dedication is not for everyone. But surely I’m not the only who has looked at the great torrent of bodies flowing through the streets of Chicago on race day and thought, “That’s wonderful, but not for me.”
If there are more contrarians out there, I’d like to hear from you. If you’d like to join me in making the pledge to run 26.1 miles, we can do it together. We can start a club, and use our collective strength to raise money for a good cause, because that’s the kind of people we are. Who knows, the movement might spread nationally, even internationally.
Yes, I can see it now. A race for runners who refuse to run with the pack. A race for iconoclasts, for the unwavering, the single-minded, the men and women who run for the sake of running, not for bragging rights.
This is an idea that could catch on. It could be big.
And if it does, of course… I’m out.