Did Oprah Make You a Marathoner?

Posted by Filed Under: News and Opinion

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.

oprah_b.jpgI 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.

About Anne

Anne’s been running for so long that when two paths diverge in the woods, not only she does she know to go for the one with the most foreboding weeds, swarms of bees and steep, rocky climbs, but she convinces everyone else to come along. Then, before people are done cursing and nursing insect bites, bloody knees and poison oak outbreaks, she’ll again run — away. She eschews a lot of the newfangled devices that are supposed to make you a better runner because she believes it’s what you put into your body, not on it, that really matters. (Footwear is the exception.) That includes proper nourishment of the mind, which we all know is what really makes the difference on the road…and the trail…and the track. At some point she started to realize that not everyone has run into an Alaskan grizzly bear, been pegged by police as a robber, lost her shorts in a major marathon, rubbed elbows with Olympians, mistaken movie stars for beach bums and watched a wildfire consume her suburb - yes, while she was on a long run. Whether it’s these unique situations, or the universal ones every recreational runner encounters, after she lives it, she loves nothing better than to write about it at Run DMZ.

  1. ff_jeff on June 13th at 7:32 am

    I have to laugh. My whole purpose for trying to get faster is because I had a group of people heckeling me that Oprah finished with a faster Marathon time than I did. I even wrote a couple of blog posts about it.

  2. jank on June 13th at 8:15 am

    Hey, anything that gets folks off their rumps and on the road is good.

  3. Susan on June 13th at 11:58 am

    I think the Team in Training people probably influenced my first marathon as much as anything else. Although I didn’t do TNT, I went to a meeting and read a lot of TNT blogs before I committed to doing my first marathon. They made me realize two things: 1. that it was possible for the common person to run a marathon and 2. that there is something harder than training for a marathon – trying to raise money while you’re doing it.

  4. Melisa (Irish Blue) on June 13th at 5:50 pm

    I have to admit, I want to run my first marathon in under 4:30 so I can beat Oprah. Sad, but true.

    I agree with Jank, if she motivated people, then it’s a good thing.

  5. Jeanne on June 13th at 6:25 pm

    what a story anne! i’m still impressed by oprah’s finish.

  6. mark on June 13th at 11:42 pm

    For me, being faster than Oprah is a lot like being potty trained. No one is impressed than I am, but everyone would be disappointed if I wasn’t.

  7. Jack on June 14th at 1:34 am

    I have to agree with your last sentence, humble Susan is much more of a role model to me then Star & Glitter Oprah.

  8. Oprah Could Beat Me In a Race. « the razor’s edge on April 8th at 12:27 pm

    […] Winfrey, Marine Corps Marathon CRNs Anne wrote about Oprah’s influence on marathoners here. Whatever you think about Oprah, you have to hand it to her – she followed through on her program, […]

  9. MMS Jim on March 8th at 10:18 am

    With this generation of couch potatos – we need more of the get your butt up and do something news coverage. Good work!

  10. Michelle on April 10th at 12:49 am

    I don’t understand why so many people always manage to find fault in even the most positive of things.  Whether or not Oprah or any celeb had drinks handed to them or got to start right at the beginning… they still ran a marathon!  Even to walk that distance is a huge effort, it doesn’t matter how long it took them.  They did it!  And to any runner out there who has become so blase about their running that they think running a marathon in 4.5 hours is “not that great”….  the fact you even think that tells me you’ve lost sight of one of the very best things about running – the concept of “personal best”.     Oprah running the marathon hasn’t made me think “I could beat her”, it’s made me think “if she can do it so can I”.    I plan to run my first marathon in September, and even if it takes me5 or 6 hours, even getting to the START line will be a major achievment, I can’t even begin to imagine how proud of myself I’ll be for finishing it.