Monday, May 28, 2012

Marathon man

Another Buffalo Marathon (and half-marathon) is/are in the books, and another story covering the event has been published.

What's it like? The word that comes to mind is "helpless."

For starters, there's one question that comes up constantly when I tell people who don't know much about running that I'm going to covering the marathon. It's a form of "Are you going to run in it too?"

Well, no. Not only is it too far for me, but in order to talk to the winner at the finish line, I'd have to win the race. This would be, um, less than likely.

This is a massive event. There are were about 5,200 runners lined up at the start. They took off and ran more than 26 miles around the streets of Buffalo. That is a lot of territory. There's always something going on somewhere, but it's impossible to be everywhere at once. It's also unwieldy, in that you don't know what can go wrong. I compare it to a wedding, as it will plow ahead from start to finish even if there are things that happen that don't follow the plan.

For example, there was the train a couple of years ago.

The route crossed some train tracks at around eight miles at that point. Sure enough, somehow a long train came rolling through during the race in spite of many efforts beforehand to insure that nothing of the sort would happen. I asked around to find some people who had been stuck on the wrong side of the tracks in order to get first-hand information and some quotes. Some were unhappy to the point of anger because they might not be able to set a personal record; some just shrugged shoulders and said "stuff happens."

Then there was the time I saw a friend sitting on a curb looking by the finish, looking angry. When I asked what the race was like, he went into a rant about something about the course that had messed everything up. I couldn't even understand him, he was so angry.

Turns out that the leaders had gone along the path on the waterfront and reached LaSalle Park. The traffic volunteer had told them to go left, when they should have gone right. The mistake was corrected quite quickly. But you still had the sight of the leaders going in one direction and some others going in the other ... when that part of the course was supposed to be a big circle. By the way, it didn't make one inch of a difference because they were all covering the same distance ... but in different ways.

Last year, a half-marathoner who was leading was pointed in the wrong direction at the halfway point. He was sent up the marathon path instead of back to the half-marathon finish line. Confused, he eventually turned around and walked back to the finish line -- crossing the wrong way. It's always, or at least often, something.

A new wrinkle came up for me this year. A runner had signed up for the full marathon, got a little tired after 10 miles, and decided to call it a day after 13.1 miles. But he didn't tell anyone when he crossed the finish line, and his chip thought he was a marathoner. This has happened in the past, but it is tough to catch people in the mob in the finish area. So ... his name went in the newspaper as the fastest local finisher of the marathon. He wrote me afterwards to explain, which was appreciated. The race committee, meanwhile, is working on solving that particular problem for next year.

There is at least plenty of drama at the finish line, where I hang out. I chatted with some friends who handed out the medals, and they pointed out you see practically everything after a morning of watching people finish. There is sheer elation in many, as they check off something on their bucket list or prove a point to themselves. There's also fainting, crawling and vomiting.

A fact of life about marathons is that the East Africans -- Kenya and Ethiopia -- usually dominate men's races. That's been true in Buffalo for the last eight or so years. The women's winners have been a little more diverse here, although in the big international events the Africans are still the best. Many top runners come to the United States and run for a living here. A Buffalo winner a while ago had run a marathon in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks before. People like that usually are supporting a large extended family back home, so they run and run and run. It must be difficult to know you are a small injury away from cutting off all income to the folks in Africa.

There's also a language barrier involved in interviews, since English has been a second (or third...) language to many winners. That makes trying to get a good question understood difficult, let alone a good answer in reply. A couple of years ago a local woman was the surprise winner; she never realized how happy I was to see her.

There's one little secret involved with covering a marathon, though. Every single runner is a story, and a good one. Some people are running to raise money for a charity. Some run to cap a weight-loss project. Some run to improve self-esteem. Some run to show that dirty rotten ex-spouse something. Some want to run marathons in 50 states. And so on down the line. This year I talked to a soldier who flew in from Alaska after a tour of duty in Afghanistan to see his wife try to break 1 hour, 45 minutes in the half-marathon.

It's all great theater. As a reporter, you can't ask for more than that.

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