Last week one of the most popular stories on the New York Times online was about modern marathoners and how they differ from the first running boom. It’s a subject that’s been discussed before here at Complete Running.
What caught my attention was this passage from the article by author John Hanc:
Today’s marathoner is less likely to have been motivated by an Olympian than by Oprah. Her slow-but-steady completion of the 1994 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., is considered the start of the second marathon boom, one that has dwarfed the first, and is far more democratic in nature.
I completed that same race in 1994. Back then, my friends and I grabbed the one-size-fits-all training schedule from a local Fleet Feet store for guidance. You ran six days a week, usually alone, building from 25 to 60 or more miles weekly. There was also a book by Jeff Galloway favored by beginners, published before his walk-run movement took hold. There may have been a few web sites to turn to for training or race information, but very few people I knew had Internet access. Instead, we turned to local marathon vets for advice, which always seemed to boil down to two things: to finish faster, run faster; and get in at least one 20-miler and you’ll do just fine.
I remember reading about Oprah in that Saturday’s Washington Post, how she was planning to run 4:30. I also remember thinking: My sister and I can beat her. We woke that Sunday to a thunderstorm and the rain didn’t let up until the end of the race. There were no corrals at the start. There were no chips. You basically did your business at the portable toilets before filing in behind one of the time placards in a field 16,000 strong, with the self-seeding being about as accurate as it is today. I distinctly remember being at the start of the 4-hour group, which was two-thirds of the way back. It took about 11 minutes to cross the start. That meant we already were 11 minutes in the hole compared to Oprah, who started on the front line.
The constant downpours and our injured knees got the best of us. We found ourselves at the back of the pack – the 5-hour group in those days – by the time we hit The Mall. That’s when we befriended a guy wearing a self-designed ‘I Run For Brady’ shirt. He was a New York writer who ran marathons to raise awareness for gun control by honoring former White House press secretary Jim Brady, who was shot during the Reagan assassination attempt. This guy with us had a bullet lodged in his skull and was the closest we saw that day to a charity runner.
Oprah did finish close to her predicted time and thanked her trainer and other official runners who kept her on pace and handed her water and electrolytes so she didn’t have to stop at aid stations. That led to (unfounded) rumors she’d ‘cheated’ by having assistance on the course.
Later on an Oprah Winfrey Show segment featuring the marathon, the host noted that all her media attention had detracted from the people who won. She then introduced the female winner, a woman I’d met earlier that year at a 10k. Susan Malloy, who finished about two hours ahead of Oprah, was no celebrity and seemed uncomfortable being in the spotlight. It reminded me of when we met, where I’d seen the impressive splits she’d written on her hand while we were waiting in a long porta-potty line. We struck up a conversation. Afterward we ran into each other and I asked how she did. “Real well, she responded. Only the next day did I see in the newspaper that she’d finished first and set a new course record.
She may not have had the influence that apparently Oprah did, but Susan was the one who became my role model.