Eugene Marathon: Focus on the Finish

Bill Bowerman introduced distance running to Americans as a participatory sport. This was a wild re-imagination of the sport itself, originating right here in Eugene. He held “all comers” meets every Saturday from Hayward Field. He never stopped reaching out to young people, introducing them to a sport that required no equipment, no rules, no special skills. Just run.

Bowerman was always teaching. Running doesn’t matter. Winning matters even less. Life is what matters, and learning to run might teach you something about life. Winning is for a few, but everybody wants to live a better life.

Vin Lananna has not just followed Bowerman. He’s reincarnated him. Using Hayward Field’s mystique, he has wooed the highest powers in the sport. He has given Eugene (again) a unique success story. He hasn’t yet turned the sport on its ear with any radical reinventions. But he’s just getting started.

I enjoyed watching the Eugene Marathon last weekend. Like so many of you, I grabbed a lawn chair and a cup of caffeine and made my way to the closest viewing spot. From my neighborhood, I can watch the runners twice. It’s just past Mile Post 2 as they head south, then it’s Mile Post 6, when they come back to the north.

As the runners headed south, what I saw was a mass of humanity — large clumps of runners hanging together. Just four miles later, the racers had sorted themselves almost to single-file status. As I watched them heading north across Amazon Park, I imagined myself in a wedding receiving line. I could look at the face of almost every runner individually, and silently thank them for coming. (It must have been a terrible wedding, though, because none of my imagined guests could get away quickly enough.)

Here I have to admit that I’ve never bothered to watch the end of the race. Why? Because I lack the endurance. The fleetest of the full marathoners begin arriving shortly after 8 a.m. After that, it’s a steady stream of finishers until darn near noon.

That’s four hours of cheering for thousands of individuals. To be able to do that, I’d have to train for months, and who has the time for that?

The start of the race is much more satisfying. Six thousand runners, responding to a single starting gun — that can take your breath away! For that brief moment, athletes and audience are all sharing the same exhilaration. It’s like attending a wedding. You can’t watch without reliving your own vows.

That got me thinking, which is what I did during gaps between guests fleeing my imaginary wedding.

Racers all wear digital watches now, measuring their progress throughout the course, trying to stay on pace to achieve their hoped-for finish time. Only the elite runners are racing against one another in a marathon. Everyone else is simply trying to better their own best time — their own best self.

Winning isn’t usually a consideration, but excellence and improvement always are.

So here’s a radical idea. What if we hosted a staggered-start marathon? It would work like this. Every racer would state their goal for a finishing time. Organizers would sort the runners by their projected finish time, starting the slowest runners first and the fastest runners last.

If every runner reached their personal goal exactly, all the runners would reach the finish line at the same time. This would give Bowerman’s ultimate participatory sport what even Bowerman didn’t devise — a made-for-TV climax.

Fans would flock to the finish line to experience the drama. The first person across the finish line wouldn’t be the winner of the race, but the person who bettered themselves the most.

Instead of sorting thousands of competitors into the Winner and Everybody Else, they would sort themselves into better and worse than they had hoped.

Bowerman believed running was just like life. Doing the best you can is what should be celebrated. Shouldn’t we stage a race that demonstrates this?

Don’t overthink running or life. Focus on the finish. Do that and you’ve already won.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.