An old car may perform beautifully for years, dutifully chauffeuring its owner from place to place, never showing great signs of distress, only to suffer a major breakdown when asked to push to the limit on the open road. Runners are not much different, which is why the marathon tends to bring out the worst in us.
Not everyone suffers from midmarathon nausea, but it does seem that most of us have some sort of frailty that peeks its problematic head up during the excessive stresses of the marathon race, or at least during marathon training. At the Twin Cities Marathon the second-fastest American of all time, Dick Beardsley, was suffering through a prolonged absence from his specialty and was working on TV coverage of the race instead. Beardsley’s achilles heel has been his achilles tendon, and an operation to correct the problem had sidelined him for months.
“The doctor told me I could be running up to ten miles a day by November,” he said.
I didn’t tell him about the thermostats.
In fact, injuries incurred during training and racing are much more common than sensitive stomachs in interfering with people’s marathon attempts. Many runners find that the amount of training necessary to allow them to feel comfortable running the marathon is well beyond the amount they can handle without sustaining an injury. Usually it’s a knee, a hip, an arch, or, as in Beardsley’s case, a bad tendon or two that become wrenches in the marathon machinery. And the exact cure is often elusive.
For years I suffered from a sharp pain in my left knee, which was especially acute during downhill running. After five or six years of flirting with ice, aspirin, and cortisone treatments, the pain finally subsided with the development of better running shoes. Apparently the problem was bursitis, but knowing that didn’t seem to help much. And though doctors in recent years have gotten better at treating the well-hidden glitches in human athletic machinery, they’re not always sympathetic to the excesses of long-distance runners.
A college teammate of mine who had injured his knee complained to his doctor that the joint would tighten up when he tried to run more than five miles a day.
The doctor was incredulous. “Well then, don’t run more than five miles a day,” he said.