Is there a Runners Anonymous number I can call? I am in trouble. At 9 o'clock yesterday morning, as the sun sparkled off the soft mist over the monuments, I watched the start of the Marine Corps Marathon. Yes, yes, I confess. I am weak, and I am thinking of running again.
I have tried to quit. For a year and a half now, I have been on the Adidas wagon. I wear the three-striped shoes only to the mall for my wife's long-haul shopping. I remember how bad it was. I lay in bed one morning, unable to move, and I said, "Boy, are you dumb."
I ran daily for two years, everywhere from Central Park to Beverly Hills to Broken Arrow, Okla. I ran in the '78 Marine Corps Marathon, after which I said, "It was easy, like going to climb Mount Everest and discovering it was only 10 feet tall." I ran the marathon in 4 hours 17 minutes. The next fall, I finished the New York City Marathon, memorable for the woman at the 16-mile mark who shouted, "Congratulations, you survived the South Bronx."
Six weeks after New York, sciatica arrived.
I had never been hurt running. Just walked off a plane, and there it was. A pain from my back running the length of a nerve to my heel, the sciatica lasted two months. I could not run, I barely could walk and sleeping was an act of courage.
All the running books preached, "Listen to your body." I figured my body was shouting, "Hey, dummy, let's play golf a while." So I quit running.
It was nice. No longer did I announce, in church, my pulse rate. The laundry room no longer smelled like the dirty-socks hamper in a Vaseline factory. I read The Atlantic instead of The Runner.
But the temptation to run is mighty. The running gurus speak of wonderful emotional highs and increased cardiovascular efficiency. Some of that is around, for sure, but most runners run marathons because they like pain. They are masochists. I am a newspaperman. I play golf. I rode motorcycles on dirt. My life clearly is full of pain, and I must love it or I would stop doing it.
Anyway, on my theory that runners run because they love to feel bad, I went to the Marine Corps Marathon early yesterday for a random sampling of pain.
Paul Peeler, 46, in his fourth Marine marathon, said he has not had any injury to speak of.
Except for the broken ankle he did not notice.
"I had a stress fracture of the right ankle," he said. "I'd done too much work too soon before I was physically ready for it."
"What did you do for the pain you must have felt?" I said.
"Just ran right through it," Peeler said, laughing. "I was too dumb to know what was going on. I expected to have some discomfort."
Peeler said he runs 50 miles a week.
I went to the marathon staging area wondering if I could find any runner among the 9,753 who had suffered, as I did, from sciatica.
It took me only two interviews to find Tom Monahan, 36, Albany, N.Y.
"I work under stress, as we all do, and I run to get rid of the stress," said Monahan, executive secretary of the New York State Medical Association. "I get depressed if I don't run. This is my third trip down here."
"Ever been hurt?"
"A sciatica problem once," Monahan said. "I went to an orthopedist, had physical therapy, dropped 15 or 20 pounds and haven't had any trouble since."
"Did the sciatica come up after a marathon?"
"No, the week before."
"So why did you run?" I said, knowing the answer.
Monahan laughed. "My wife asked me the same thing. So'd my doctor. Just say I'm a slow learner."
Instead of 12 weeks training for the Marine Corps Marathon this time, Monahan took 16.
James Cobb, 70, began running three years ago.
"I felt fat and old," he explained.
He has run 12 marathons and was upset yesterday morning to find out the Marine organizers don't have a 70-and-up age class for awards.
"If they did, they'd get at least 10 more of us crocks here," said Cobb.
This crock's best marathon time is 4:05.
"Ever been hurt?" I said.
"No bad back or anything?"
"Sure, bad back, bad knees. But I did stomach exercises for my back. And I lost 40 pounds. Everything's okay now."
I am feeling good, too. That is why I am worried. I have gained 15 pounds, taking on a golfer's physique, since I quit running. My toenails have returned to their normal color. My back is fine (although I imagined a twinge while driving to the Marine marathon, for I passed a road sign for the National Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Hospital).
I am feeling good all over, which is worrisome when it is documented fact that my engine runs on high-octane suffering.
What I need is a nice little stress fracture. Just one. Really. I'll stop with one. I can handle it. Pass the Adidases.