Critic at Large: Marathoners run their way into skeptic’s heart

Seeing the Boston Marathon changed one man's view about runners.

Why run?

I never understood this urge to open your door, do a little shuffle, break into a jog and run for miles and miles and miles.

Alone. All alone.

I never saw a runner who looked happy, I don’t care how much their Nikes cost or how bouncy the imports make them feel.

“Men who run look like fellows being chased down the street by their wives,” actor-dancer Geoffrey Holder told me years ago the morning after a screening of “Annie.”

He roared with self-approval. I laughed with him. Why run when you can dance or play pickup ball? Something to do with people rather than suffer in isolation. Groaning and sweating and wrecking knee joints. Women, too. What are they running from? Who’s chasing them?

Oh, what an elitist am I, imagining long after the decline of my own involvement in pickup basketball or fast pitch softball that I can stay in shape without some sort of exercise. Treadmills will do it, but after a while they are so artificial, so deadly boring. I want to play basketball. Full court. Fast. Hard. The doc whose knife got into my knee smiles and says, “Try golf.”

“So,” I say, “it’s either golf or the treadmill?”

“Treadmills will do you in. Try Stairmaster.”

I buy a Stairmaster, but forget to open the box.


I refuse to resemble a wimped-out male running from his wife.

Get me away from this

It’s Monday in Hopkinton, 26 miles from Boston. Cops all over the place. For a few hours, Hopkinton is the center of the universe, the starting point for the Boston Marathon. People are flocking to see 20,000 runners line up for the start. For me, it’s get out of town. I’m driving 25 miles to Boston to see the Sox. Game time, 11 a.m. Get me the hell out of here before the police close off all the roads.

Even at 75 mph, it seems like a long, tiring drive. For a few seconds, I think of the arduous trek for runners, only a few of them classified as “elite.” The rest, I assume, are the commoners. For a nanosecond or two I accord these poor souls a begrudging sense of admiration.

The game is a bore. The clods next to us buy two beers before they consume the two already in their fists. This is not the usual Fenway crowd. A New England holiday. Too many spectators out to get trashed. I begin to think of the runners who must be passing by Kenmore Square, less than a minute’s walk from the park. My companion is indulging my whim, but I know she would rather be someplace else.

Seventh inning, the Sox are up 8-0. My kids will not believe I left a game before it ended.

We’re at Kenmore, a mile from the finish line. Almost four hours since the race began. The winner raced by long before. Lance Armstrong, too; he finished 469. Now it’s the plebeians. Some are in a jog; others have slowed to a walk. They are all ages—a few definitely over 70. I can tell by their skin. Runners of all ages are focused, perhaps encouraged by the electronic sign informing them there’s a mile to go.

You can tell a few just want to drop. One woman cannot raise her head, which has now slunk onto her shoulders. It is lonely and silent. That is, it would be if it were not for the thousands of observers standing on both sides of the street. From them, I hear a joyous exultation, an unbroken symphony of whoops and cheers accented by the snares and tympanis of clapping hands.

Admiration, even envy

It’s not only encouragement and admiration, but love for those who have run the race. I feel a surge of emotion. Envy fused with love and admiration for runners on the edge of a personal victory.

I allow myself to fantasize that with a little bit of self-discipline, I, too, could enjoy the hurrahs.

Now it comes back to me: The memory of Tony Richardson’s 1962 classic film based on Alan Sillitoe’s short story. Tom Courtenay in “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” the story of Colin Smith, the juvenile delinquent who finds his calling as a runner and is used by the system he detests to race for the school.

As I watch the runners, I recall the phrase, “nails in the gut,” along with the virtues of willpower, courage, the ability to endure and resist pain, and the notion that “every run is a little life.” It’s running as a chance to meditate, and in the case of Colin, a decision to rebel by running against the system.

“Keep the pace, hold the race, your mind is getting clearer. You’re over half way there, but the miles they never seem to end as if you’re in a dream not getting anywhere. You reach the final stretch. . . . Ideals are just a trace. . . . It’s all so futile.”

That’s not the story or the movie but lyrics from “Iron Maiden’s” “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” inspired by the movie. It’s running as a metaphor for life itself with postscript: “But we go on.”

We wind our way to the finish line. The runners are surrounded by and tended to by friends and family. Some have come alone and finish alone. How many of them, I wonder, will be returning to an empty place? Something in me wants to hug them, thank them for enduring, and for a short time, honoring and elevating the human spirit that bids us to triumph, endure and resist the impulse to give into pain and despair.

Reach Gazette film critic and Columnist Dan DiNicola at [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts

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