The art of covering a frigid marathon

(The Mississippi Blues Marathon, sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi, will be run Saturday morning in Jackson, beginning at 7 a.m. at the Art Garden at the Mississippi Museum of Art. The projected temperature is 24 with a 5 mph north wind. Brrrrrr! Thirty years ago, I had planned to do a column for The Clarion-Ledger on what was then called the Pepsi Marathon. The temps were even colder. This was my column about that marathon.)

The alarm goes off at 6:30 on a Saturday morning. The mercury has dipped to 20 degrees during the night. The wind takes the chill factor down to zero. Last night’s fire has long since burned out. The only warm place, it seems, is right where you are in that bed. Move an arm or a leg this way or that and even your sheets are too cold.

But it’s 6:30 and you have a decision to make. You could:

• Roll over (in the same spot) and go back to sleep. (The only sensible choice.)

• Get up, fix a pot of coffee, bundle up and venture outside for the morning paper.

• Build another fire.

• Or, get up, stretch a few minutes and then go run 26 miles, 385 yards.

A whole bunch of people got up Saturday morning, stretched a few minutes, went outside and ran 26.2 miles. I know some of them. They are normal in most every respect. But Saturday morning, they got up, put on their running gear and ran 26 miles and change in the Pepsi Marathon. What they basically did was self-inflict torture.

Nobody, I say NOBODY, made them do it.

•••

Running has never been fun for me. Give the choice of running, walking or riding, I’ll generally ride. Given the choice of running and walking, I’ll walk. Given the choice of running 26.2 miles or having an appendectomy, I’d have to think about it.

Given the choice of running 26.2 miles in sub-freezing temps or having the appendectomy, bring on the surgeon. At least they put you to sleep before they cut you and then they give you drugs to get over it. You have the benefit of neither in a marathon.

Even non-runners can remember what it was like to run in freezing weather. Most of us did it as kids before we learned better. Remember? Tears start welling, stinging your eyes. Your nose begins to run all over your face. Your ears sting, then go numb. The cold pierces your clothes like icy, steel darts. Now then, think about enduring that torment for 26.2 miles.

I covered the Mississippi Marathon a few years ago when the temps were about the same as Saturday. One of the runners I knew finished the race, seemingly in critical condition. I say seemingly. He looked like a corpse in agony when he crossed the finish line. He had snot frozen in his mustache.

A few minutes later, I asked him: “Why?”

“Why what?” he asked back.

“Why run 26 miles on a day like this. You could catch double pneumonia. One of your ears might fall off.”

And he answered: “Well, I had to run a certain time in this race to qualify for the Boston Marathon.”

Oh, I see: You had to run 26.2 miles through an arctic blast today so you could run 26.2 miles again a few weeks later. Makes perfectly good sense.

•••

At this point, a confession. I was once an aspiring marathoner. “Aspiring” is the key word here.

Several of my friends were doing it. Plus all those guys who were real marathoners were skinnier than I, and I aspired to be skinny.

So, I joined a running club and started running, sometimes five or six miles a day. I ran some races, too. I ran 5Ks and 10Ks. If nothing else, the 6.2 mile 10-K races made me appreciate how far 26.2 miles would be.

There were three things I liked about running: 1) I could eat more without gaining weight; 2) I was encouraged to eat stuff like pasta and pizza the night before a race; 3) they always gave me a T-shirt and cold beer after the race.

My daddy thought it was silly. He’d ask me what I had done that day and I’d tell him I had run five miles and he’d say, “Who the hell was chasing you?”

Nothing about it, other than pizza and beer, was fun. Nothing. It hurt. Still I was committed to running a marathon and the next step was what they call a half marathon (13.1 miles). To makes 13.1 mile story short, it almost killed me. It did humble me. I struggled and wobbled to the finish. My knee locked at the finish line. The next day it would not bend. I retired, but my knee still creaks on cold, wintry days.

The knee reminded me of all that Saturday morning when I got up to go write a column about the Pepsi Marathon. So I did what I considered the only sensible thing.

I went back and got in bed. In the same warm spot. And what you got is this.

•••

This column is from a collection of columns — It’s More Than a Game — published in 2000. The book is available in the gift shop of your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

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