Marathoning and Memory: 25 Years of Running

by Kent Oglesby, an article which first appeared in Vitality Magazine

Last year I delivered a talk to a group of marathoners who had qualified for the Boston Marathon. The running of the 100th Boston Marathon got me to thinking about my last 25 years of running. After some reflection, I realized that my experiences with running a marathon were a mirror in which one could see the shared experiences of a generation of baby boomers.

Like many of my generation, I began running in the early 70's. I suppose my main objective in those days was merely to keep even with an expanding waist line and to reverse some of the adverse vices of being a college student in the late 60's.

The first marathon I ran, however, was the Denver Marathon in the late 70's (I've tried to forget the exact year.) I had returned from a vacation to the Northwest during which I had continued to take a few jogs mostly to keep my beer drinking from gaining the upper hand. Upon returning to Colorado sometime in August, I consulted the calendar and found I had 55 days before the Denver Marathon which was scheduled for some time in October. Almost two months! Plenty of time! Besides it had a nice ring, like the movie, 55 Days at Peking. It certainly seemed like an "omen." Unfortunately that was a movie too.

So I began training with little or no understanding about the task I was undertaking. Today I keep a fairly meticulous log book which chronicles a fairly well thought out program of training. I have searched for my running log of that period, but like the Dead Sea Scrolls, a few documents are missing. However, if my fading memory serves me, I began a regimen of daily running which included--well, just running. I do remember doing my long runs as repeats of the square mile section on which Rocky Mountain High School sits. I would park my car in the back parking lot closest to Shields Street and begin the four mile square course.

If I recall correctly, my longest run prior to the Marathon was four "loops" returning to the parking lot each time for water and self assessment. I think my now lost log book referred to that run as an 18 miler. Of course 4 times 4 miles is still 16, except in the rarefied air of running where mathematics takes on a subjective element. I "reasoned" that returning to the parking lot each time tacked on additional miles (at least a block each way off Shields) which allowed me to add two more miles to my total. This process has become known in the lexicon and lore of running as "Oglesby miles," not to be confused with real miles. The same logic seems to apply when giving ones time for a specific race. I have become faster over the years simply through the process of memory and rationalization.

I survived the Denver Marathon, but justly barely. Predictably, I went out a bit too fast. O.K. I went out a lot too fast. Somewhere around 20 or 21 miles I remember walking into a parking lot close to My Brother's Bar (unfortunately not MY brother's, just the bar's name). A race volunteer kindly helped me to water and encouragement. When it appeared that I was not going to leave any time soon, he escorted me back to the course and told me: "The finish line is that way, now get your tired ass out of my parking lot." Mistaking the threat of violence for a kind of Vince Lombardi encouragement, I headed toward the finish of my first marathon.

I suspect my experience is not too different from many of us who started running 25 years ago. Today running has gained a slick sophistication. Shoes are decidedly better (companies hire engineers from Stanford), courses are accurate for the most part, and everyone knows the difference between aerobic and anaerobic.

However, running is still a very individual experience. We run and race for reasons that are personal and perhaps inexplicable. Emerson tells us in his essay "Self-Reliance" that "it is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great person is one who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude." I think Emerson anticipated the running phenomenon and cryptically sent us a message from Concord which is not far from Hopkinton, the starting line of the greatest Marathon: "Run your own pace."