Along with practically everyone else in Boston last Monday, I didn't catch a glimpse of Rosie Ruiz on the course, either. I wouldn't have noticed her anyway, because the image fixed in my mind for much of the race came between the one- and two-mile marks. Dr. George Sheehan, metaphyician-cardiologist, was busy grabbing beers from the hands of spectators. Twice he drank half the can and twice he poured the other half over his head and down his shirtless back.
What's it coming to? I thought. All these impressionable children lining the road out of Hopkinton and what do they see but the world's most celebrated running doctor not only swigging beer at noon in the first mile of the marathon but basting his skin with it as though it was baby oil.
My thinking about Doc Sheehan takes the same path as my feelings about Rosie Ruiz: it takes all kinds. Sheehan is a sparkling, carefree fellow. Though his beer drinking offends every deveil-fearing Mennonite, it is no-threat to the integrity of running.Nor is the unfortunate Ruiz case.
Running is a big house, with two main rooms: room for improvement and room for everyone.
That's the beauty of the marathon.
As for integrity, unlike almost any other sport, long distance running can't be faked. The lucky bounces in golf, the recovered fumbles in football, these have no corollary in running. Running's lack of fakery helps explain its popularity. Popular culture, whether displayed in the corn row of Bo Derek or the corn oil commercials of Mazola, in which "Indians" do the selling, is besotted with so much of the cravenly unreal that something as authentic and undoctored as distance running is bound to appeal to large numbers of citizens. T. S. Eliot may have believed that man can take only so much reality before he sickens, but T. S. Eliot was living in wartime England. In America of the '70s and '80s, nausea comes on from the battle wounds of unreality, with the sickened turning to running for recovery.
The Ruiz case, or at least the charges being made by a number of respected race organizers like Fred Lebow and Jock Semple, suggest that maybe fakery has permeated running, too.
In trembling tones, as if the sport had the fragility of a lavered pastry shell, it is now asked, what will happen to the integrity of running? It's true that if Ruiz is a phony -- and the evidence so far, though not conclusive, suggest something is awry -- the image of running will be hurt. But the image was somewhat glossy to begin with.
Incidents of deception, cheap stunts and impostors are well known to race organizers. At last year's New York marathon, a group of runners broke from the starting line before the gun. At this year's Cherry Blossom, an official caught someone who sent in four applications, hoping to increase his cahnces in the entry lottery. Last Wednesday, the Boston Globe reported on a Florida man "who apparently has used four different names to qualify for recent distance races and twice has been accused of cutting races." In his new book, Bill Rodgers reports that George Plimpton told him of jumping into a Boston Marathon near the finish line. (Rodgers advised Plimpton to "summon up the courage" to run the entire marathon.)
It is the sharpest of ironies that so unfraudulent a sport as running is now attracting frauds. But so what? Why should this sport be immune from human feelings? And, the examples of phoniness are rare. For every character who crashes a marathon at the 25-mile mark, there are thousands who are scrupulously dedicated to the behind-the-scenes volunteering that make the races go smoothyly.
Whatever publicity Ruiz has brought to herself, we still have heroic figures like Jerry Traylor, the crippled West Virginian who run marathons on crutches. There are people who cheat on their income taxes, steal from their companies and lie to their spouses who would never think of putting one over on their fellow runners.
However intense the assaults on the sport's integrity may be, they are well short of the scandals that regularly haunt other sports.
The Ruiz affairs offers runners still another opportunity to practice forebearance. Nonrunners are now clucking: So this is the "moral superiority" we keep hearing about.
Two weeks ago, similar snickers were heard when the story broke about prize money at the New York marathon. You guys are supposed to be pure, runners were told, and now it comes out you're as greedy as all the rest.
Nonrunners calling runners phonies is a kind of moral superiority in reverse: I'm just an ordinary human being with no pretensions. Except that having no pretensions is the most puffed pretension of all. I've known runners to get carried away, as the evening wears on, with talk of their latest marathons. But when you compare their talk with the other gab around the table, it brings on a lot fewer yawns, at least from me, than some clown's theories on foreign policy.
In these circumstances, anyone who can limit his conversational urges to a subject about which he knows something -- in this case, the state of his leg -- is "morally superior."
Boston, Ruiz regardless, still was a grand event.
If the marathon did have a low point, it occurred 15 minutes before the race in a house a quarter of a mile from the starting line. The owners had opened it up to runners needing a toilet. One runner, a women who didn't have a number and was competing unofficially, reports that her presence in the toilet line offended an official runner: "'Get to the back of the line,' she told me. 'You don't have a number and I do,' I told her tut tut. Then she said. 'Don't take more than 30 seconds.'"
I was on the side of the unofficial runner. Chests are numbered, not bladders. Civility still comes before rank. A Rosie Ruiz we can deal with, but when runners start picking fights at the toilets, then the sport really is in trouble.