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Jacobsen: Marathons give everyone a shot (Feb. 4)

Vicky Jacobsen | Monday, February 4, 2013


Maybe you were the high school tight end who realized he had a better chance of making it to the Rose Bowl as a trumpet player in the marching band. Maybe dreams of scoring in the World Cup faded away as it became more and more apparent that you are slow and uncoordinated. Personally, I started to doubt my chances of NCAA hoops glory when I got cut from my middle school basketball team.

Forget about winning titles and medals – most of us won’t even get to compete in the events we loved watching as kids. 

Unless you’re a runner. The Olympics might be out of reach, but the World Marathon Majors (Boston, London, Berlin, New York, Chicago and, beginning this year, Tokyo) are the only contests where amateurs can honestly say that they competed in an iconic event against the best athletes in the world. 

There are limits to who can enter one of the races – to be one of the 20,000-plus participants who run in any given year, you either have to meet a qualifying time at a smaller marathon or receive a sponsors’ exemption, many of which go to charity runners who collectively raise more than $10 million a year. But the diversity of participants is staggering: There are separate qualifying standards for each age group (for the 75-plus club, don’t worry, it’s not too late to start training), and the wheelchair race leads off the festivities.

The Boston Marathon was first run in 1896, making it by far the oldest of the annual major marathons (New York, the second, didn’t come around until 1970.). The race is part of the festivities honoring Patriots’ Day, a Massachusetts state holiday held on the third Monday of April to commemorate the battles of Lexington and Concord.

I realize the Boston Marathon doesn’t get the same sort of attention paid to a lot of team sports. TV ratings aren’t going to be all that high when the race is held on a Monday morning when most of the country is in the office. It does lack a lot of the spectacle that has become a standard part of American sports (No, Beyoncé will not be serenading runners as they struggle up Heartbreak Hill.). The winners probably won’t become household names, at least not in the United States. I’m sure last year’s winners, Wesley Korir and Sharon Cherop, are well known in Nairobi. And for the 48 states that don’t celebrate Patriots’ Day, there is no tailgating and no partying.

But are any of those things good reasons to hold or watch a sporting event? I love the trappings of modern sporting events as much as the next person, but as humans we are still eager to compete even when there is no money, glory or partying to be had. On the most basic level, we love sports because it is our attempt to transcend the limitations of the human body. We want to see the seemingly impossible done before our eyes. We want miraculous diving catches, gymnasts with strength and balance that appear to defy the laws of gravity and bicyclists who think it’s a good idea to pedal up the Pyrenees and ride back down.

While the marathon might lack the flash of some of those sports, it makes up for it in its elegant simplicity. For every participant, from the top runner in the world to the weekend warrior to the cancer survivor running for charity, the feat is the same. They might have different goals and expectations, but each is forcing his or her body to run a 26.2-mile course as every instinct wants to slow down.

We often hear that sports serve to inspire us. What professional athletes do is amazing, but isn’t it even more meaningful when you see your neighbors, colleagues or fellow college students taking on the same challenge? I would have to say yes. So that’s why I’m choosing the Boston Marathon – the simplest and most democratic contest on the athletic calendar – as the best event in sports.

Contact Vicky Jacobsen at [email protected]
The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.