Marathon Girl

Was it 1975, the year my brother and I caught the bus to Boston to see a Red Sox game and the finish of the Boston Marathon? I know it was Patriot’s Day, because we both had the day off and also because that’s when the Boston Marathon happens. Although we didn’t stay for the final inning, we knew how the game would end. Strangely, in my memory the Red Sox were the winners by a big margin. But a Google search tells me that my memory was flawed, that no, the Red Sox lost by a big margin. At any rate, there was no question about which team would win when Edward and I and a lot of other people got up and left. Marathon day meant a mass exit from Fenway and a short walk toward the finish line on Boylston Street. I remember walking past some sort of public garden area. Bostonians in gardening clothes and straw hats were raking, hoeing, planting, or weeding in their individual plots, and my memory of that part of the walk is almost dreamlike; I mean, there were the Red Sox on one side, and there was the Boston Marathon on the other, and there was that bucolic utopia in the middle of all the zaniness that was Boston then and I hope still is Boston now.

We weren’t at the finish line, but we were close enough. The winner of the men’s race that year was Bill Rodgers, an American, and we cheered as he passed us. He was finishing a 26.2-mile race, and, as everyone knows, the last 26 miles are the hardest. The last 26 miles demand dedication and training, days of protein-pushing and carbo-loading, electrolytes, water, and willpower. We continued to cheer as each runner pounded by until it was time to catch our bus back to New Bedford. I knew that day that the marathon was my sport! I’m a walker, not a runner, so I’m talking spectator sport here. But what I admire in any endeavor is the ability to “keep calm and carry on,” as the English Ministry of Information famously declared during the dark days of World War II. Stamina is way more important than energy, as I less famously suggested in my poem “Magalhães’ Last Testament,” which begins:

Having always been a person of more stamina

than energy, I’m not surprised to find myself

in the Philippines, although these wide-eyed natives

are surprised.

Those are Magellan’s words, or, to be more accurate, the words I put in his mouth, and when things go bad, when he realizes that “I guess stamina won’t pull me through this time,” he still isn’t sorry. He has kept calm and carried on. He has done his job.

Several years later I witnessed a history-making marathon, although I wasn’t lucky enough to be there in person. I remember watching on television as a young woman in a white cap emerged from the tunnel into the coliseum and, with the crowd cheering wildly, continued to the finish line. She was Joan Benoit, and she won the gold medal in the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The crowd was definitely not calm, but Joan carried on and did her job.

The medium of television is great for showing the whole marathon from start to finish, but of course the cameras can’t capture all of the runners all of the time. Only the most important races are televised, and whether or not you can see the one you want to see depends on your TV provider and the package of channels you have chosen. And of course nothing beats seeing the race in person, that slice of the race visible from your hard-won piece of sidewalk. But you have to be in the right place at the right time. When my husband and I were in Paris in April of 2015, we just happened upon the Paris Marathon, which begins at the Arc de Triomphe, loops around various Parisian attractions, and for part of the route follows the Seine. That’s the part we saw. I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to run, or to watch other people run.

That’s one kind of marathon, one person going the distance, making it to the finish line, navigating the mind-blowing beauty of the fjords lining the Strait of Magellan despite the fierceness of the williwaws. One person keeping on trucking, keeping on keeping on. But there’s another sort of marathon, the crowd-sourced kind, the passing-the-baton kind, the carrying-the-Olympic-torch kind, the Vestal-Virgins-keeping-the-fires-going kind, the lights-going-on-all-over-the-world kind. When I was in elementary school I read about the Vestal Virgins in my history textbook and was fascinated, not by the virginity aspect, which I was too young to understand, but by the eternal flames, because keeping the home fires burning was another way of keeping on keeping on.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon falls into the second category, the crowd-sourced category. Moby-Dick contains 135 chapters and an epilogue; reading it takes about twenty-four hours, no breaks, no naps. With volunteer readers passing the baton, it is a true marathon event, and last fall Joe and I decided to apply to be among this year’s 215. We arrived in New Bedford the day after a nor’easter brought wind, snow, and temperatures hovering around zero degrees to the whaling city. Despite the cold and the icy streets and sidewalks, the museum was packed, and everyone appeared to be having a good time. The initial readers read the opening chapters in the Bourne Building right in front of the Lagoda, a half-scale model of a whaleship; it’s large enough to climb aboard and explore. Father Mapple’s sermon was delivered in the Seamen’s Bethel, right across the street. And then, for the First and Second Dog Watches, readers and listeners settled into the museum’s Harbor View Gallery, where two podiums in front of a backdrop of a harbor scene meant that there would be no breaks between each reader’s allotted pages. Joe and I were scheduled for the Evening Watch, also in the Harbor View Gallery. Reading from, and listening to Moby-Dick made me realize all over again what an incredible novel Herman Melville has given us. It just keeps on keeping on. Do I feel as if I’ve run a 26.2-mile race, or at least a small bit of it? You bet I do!

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