Heart of America Marathon
Labor Day heart2.gif (4940 bytes) Columbia, Missouri

The Perfect Marathon?

By Eric Bengtson
Translated from the Swedish by Dick Hessler

Columbia, Missouri is not a steamy rain forest west of the Mississippi like had always been told to me. It is cut, open in a way, and almost English: clear skies, huge, echoing sunlight. The landscape rises a little as your eyebrows are vibrated by the rumble of very fast traffic on 1-70.

Six weeks and 960 miles after having left Port Deposit in Maryland, to try to run, first, across the Mississippi, and second, over the entire continent to California, it being my opinion that the best way to find out about America is on foot. I had made it to around 25 miles outside Kansas City where one sees the clouds, experiences the treetops, bushy and resinous.

It was Sunday afternoon. I was parked behind St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Columbia. I had just finished a 138-mile week. Alone in my mobile home, I laid myself back in a corner with a newspaper. A potato casserole bubbled on the stove.

I saw tomorrow's news, sitting me right up. I had forgotten in my tired state what I had already known: next day, Labor Day, a holiday, the Heart of America Marathon will commence. Here, in this city!

Did I hear a trumpet? I heard a trumpet.

Craziness. But the next day, a quarter to six in the morning - one feared that it would be hot. I jogged around, mixing with hundreds of others at the starting line.

Half blind, on shaky bones, the old fire horse will leave Its stall and attempt the journey. Oh, yes, he had heard the signal.

I had struggled along shoulders of roads 35-40 kilometers per day, often without the possibility of even getting something to drink, always alone, sometimes desperately tired. But, it is true that, even though I go slowly, I get someplace. This was the right place.

Now should I, in a bout of insanity, get into a marathon, 42 kilometers, as it wouldn't take me one step westward? No, I shouldn't. What was I doing here?

The main reason was the need for a driver for my motor home. I already knew that it was the beginning of the end of my transcontinental adventure. I was forced to drive the van from point A to point B, try to get a lift back to A and finally run from A to B. To keep the length of the run reasonable, I had to repeat this procedure two or three times a day. Sooner or later, I should find (which also was a fact, especially when there were few gas stations between cities) that I could not go any longer.

But here, among fellow kinsmen, one ought to arrive at an understanding of this problem like an average American. I had been in the paper, on radio; it shouldn't be too hard to mobilize some help. Therefore, I wandered now around here in the dark looking for some race official who could get me a race number in exchange for my two dollar donation. This was a murky quest to get a foot in the community. Running was, strictly speaking, the last thing I wanted to do.

Here I found a pacifier, not a race official, but Dick Hessler, one of the race favorites, professor of statistics at Columbia University [he meant professor of sociology at UMC]. He had lived in Goteborg (Sweden) for a half year not so long ago, racing for Solvikingarna [distance running club named "Sunvikings"]. He had taken an interest in the Swedish flag that I wore on my running shorts. Quickly I told him about my problem. Just as quickly, he introduced me to his wife. She was scheduled to help at an aid station at 7 miles. After that she would drive her car back to the finish line. Perfect!

Suddenly life was good. I had gotten myself into deep water and now I had a lifeboat. Run 50 minutes, that would be a treat for me.

Once again a possibility emerged when I spoke with the president of the Columbia Track Club, Joe Duncan. Did I need to run from east to west? Interesting! Could I be interviewed at the award ceremony?

Yes, life is good. I should be on my way out of Columbia around noon with a driver, the first in a chain that should get me the 20 miles outside of Kansas City, so infinitely clear.

It was getting close to the starting shot. With haste I jogged to my camper with my two dollars.

I did not need a number to run to the checkpoint.

When I returned to the starting line it was empty of runners; they were already on their way. The starter was collecting his red flag, car doors slammed again, headlights lit up. Here I was exposed now out in the dark.

I set out at a very pleasant pace, a small bit of fear running through me.

After five or Six minutes, I caught the last runners: two women, an older man, a tall 13-year-old boy. Soon I caught sight of the maln pack slowing down, lettlng me merge into it. Now I was part of them, convinced that I too ran under the same canopy of deep optimism that I had sought out earlier with questions like, "Am I properly trained for this race?" and "In what condition will I find myself when the last mile beglns?", questions always emerging, particularly in the backs of the minds of less experienced runners. The marathon can be cruel. Nevertheless it conceals a deep humanism. Because it is a distance competition, those who are opponents change from competitors to brothers and sisters. It might not be so evident for the top runners. But it is for us in the middle and in the line.

The marathon: A challenge, a struggle but also a manifestation of community.

Here comes now a tall runner in orange shorts and naked upper body passing on the outside. He took off his sun hat, wished everyone a good morning, then excused hlmself because he had looked at his watch and said he must "step it up a little." [This would be Arnie Rlchards].

"Have a nice day!" we shouted after hlm.

"Take care!"

Ironical? Not in the least.

Nameless, numberless I ran here. Iknew no one, no one knew me.

Now I realized that we were getting close to the aid station at 7 miles. The darkness had begun to lift. Soon the sun should rise over the hllls away In the east.

The road turned to the left. Now should begin the gravel installment that the newspaper had talked about. The urban landscape retreated behind us. Here we were among cow sheds, silos, outhouses. We were suddenly in the country. And now the sun goes up, bright red, over the sleeplng pastoral: green pastures, cattle In the distance, misty valleys. It was almost heavenly perfect.

The aid station here. I took my time, small group, somewhat thinner, more spread out now, still running. Now I wlll be alone.

There was Dick Hessler's wife. But I only shook my head. I had decided for sure. It couldn't be Insanity. I was defenseless, fully in the hands of my inner self. What had I seen but more and more cars on sterile highways and interstates the last seven weeks? Peaceful course, fences overgrown with weeds, quiet farms, grey sheds, the main road gravel, here crimson from the sun; this was a whole other world. I should press on. I couldn't stop now.

The American psychologist Thaddeus Kostrubala had the idea that a runner, after 40 minutes running - some call it a "high" - temporarily comes under the influence of the left, "creative," half of the brain. The higher, "logical," right half of the brain shuts down accordingly. I assume there is a second, less subtle explanation, also, which I don't know, yet.

Here I ran now peacefully, philosophically graced with the landscape, nothing in the way. The time? Why worry about that?

The gravel ends. Now there is asphalt again. Here is a real hill, cars with curious onlookers parked alongside the road. And I see the point - it is Easley Hill! I had read about it in the paper and time after time had heard it mentioned, with respect, by other runners earlier this morning.

Yes, it was clearly a colossal uprise. Yes, that was clear. But time to return to reality.

Soon after the top we hit the halfway mark. (The course has the first and last kilometers in common, otherwise going in a big loop).

"1:38:39!" I heard the race official. A lofty half worse than I had hoped for. In Greece I had committed suicide (too fast in first half of marathon). Now I was less concerned than being in a traffic jam on E6 or an astronaut on the way into outer space.

Now it was definitely a new day here. The light came back to the world. The landscape that had been so quiet resounded with bird songs full of confidence - thrushes, red cardinals.

Gradually something began to build up in me. I began to straighten up my back. I began to push out my chest.

A long uphill, a string of runners. To the right, the white line, a half meter out in the road. At the crest I turned sharply again. I had them all behind me now. And I was not tired, not even slightly tired.

In an interview in the London Sunday Times some years ago, the English Europe master, Ian Thompson, told of a sort of transcendentalism that he experienced in his marathon training. He likened it to losing his own identity, to him becoming "running itself."

This condition is every runner's goal. We all have a shorter or longer time before it happens to us. It is preferably difficult.

Was I there now? Or near there?

With some consistency I have come across the disconnected phrase, "entering Boston full of run." It stuck immediately. The image in one's dream of the perfect marathon race - the vision of everything coming together on that day, everything effortless and certain; you're in perfect rhythm, perfect coordination, fully without strain you run faster than you ever have before. Pride and humility - the day is the identical concept.

No, this was not the perfect marathon race. But it was a sufficient enough peek into paradise for my taste.

I turned onto Broadway in downtown Columbia, caught sight of the finish line down a ways, gave an Indian whoop, and stormed down the last downhill.

Some minutes later I was under the finish banner, continuing to jog forward on the street, simply unable to stop. Behind me cried a voice:

"What's your number?" "Your name?"

I turned around, continued to jog on the side, and cried back:

"Forget it!"

"Prize list!"

When one has just gone for broke, finishing confirms the opinion that the best things in life are free.

Well, nevertheless, only a half hour later I stood with a prize list in my hand. One Eric Bengtson had finished 33rd out of 184 runners in the time of 3:10:56.

It was my worst time ever. Nearly a half hour worse than my personal best.

But I experienced a large detached inner smile; perspective began unveiling itself.

The setting sun let itself in through the orange curtains in the back window of the camper. I was back at the parking spot behind St. Andrew's Lutheran Church. No, the interviewee hadn't had anything to eat. Here I sat very alone. And I wouldn't have a driver, either, in the morning. I will be a little stiff in the legs. I shall feel washed out. A marathon is, nevertheless, a marathon, even if you don't run fast.

But I was not particularly worried. In some way I shall organize myself. I returned instead over and over to the morning's pleasure. Perspective had begun to reveal itself: the perfect marathon race - perfect within my limitation possibly had happened; where everything came together, nothing holding back the impossible dream.

I was 40 years old. For example, soccer players or handball players are washed up before this age. But marathon runners: born again to new sport life.

"Entering Boston full of run."

Substitute Boston with Klintehamn or Skanninge. Or anything else.

I turned the water tap. Suddenly I was standing there with hot coffee in my hand.

Yes, damn clear!


Excerpt from Marathon: En bok for barn oeh darar Lindingoopare Deh poeter (Marathon: A book for children and adults who can think like children. Running lore and poetry.)

By Eric Bengtson
Published by Forfattarforlaget Nacka, Sweden 1979