Thursday, July 29, 2010

The SF Marathon: No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem...

I would never tell anyone to let the San Francisco Marathon be his or her first marathon. The primary reason is obvious—the course is quite challenging—read: hills, hills and more hills, but the others may not be. Many are drawn to this race because it involves running over the Golden Gate Bridge. In July, however the fog does more than creep in on little cat feet. A runner is lucky if they can even see the national park in a San Francisco “summer.” Third, this race is grossly under-publicized and under-supported. Considering that San Francisco is a city of only 49 square miles, and the marathon covers 26.2 of them, residents should be lining the course. Funny, crowds line the streets for “Bay to Breakers.” Yet all is not lost; there is one very attractive option—the half marathon. The “SF half” was a bit of a “sacred cow” for my favorite running partner—Mike “Eggroll” Caponigro and me. Together, we have run it 5 times. We have taken a cab to the start that picked us up at 4:45 a.m. Mike’s wife Katie has brought “more cow bell” to this race than anyone I know. And each year, I see something new, dramatic and different. Even though I was unable to run this year, the 2010 SF Marathon did not disappoint.

Last year, despite the 5:20 a.m. start time, Mike and I were able to see a lone runner waddling his way through Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s fair to say we heard this runner before we saw him. “Are those socks?” Mike asked. Upon further inspection, we realized they're actually thin rubber "shoes" with individual toe pockets. Called “FiveFingers,” they've been selling briskly to runners and athletes looking to strengthen their feet and sharpen their game. The New York Times bestseller “Born to Run” espouses the wonders of these shoes and their minimalist approach. 21,000 runners may take part of the San Francisco Marathon (it actually includes the full marathon, the option of running the first or second half of the marathon alone as well as a 5k) and these crazy shoes are quite the rage, but they are still a rare sight on the race course.

Because of my recent health heart/condition, I was unable to run this year. I was disappointed that I would miss out, until a friend told me I wouldn’t; he invited me to volunteer with him. I have no idea how many races I have run, but if I were to take a rough guesstimate, I would venture to say at least 10 a year for the last 15 years. It was high time I was at the other side of the water stop. I was curious about what I might see.

For over two hours, we handed out GU Energy packets. I loved greeting the runners as they came through. Their energy and determination was infectious; in fact it was symbiotic. I got energy from their enthusiasm, from seeing them fight through the pain and of course from reading their shirts and launching the appropriate cheer—“Go Blue!” to the man from Michigan, “Yeah Irish” to the fellow alum. I was, however, a bit surprised to see just how seriously so many people took themselves during the race. It did not matter if someone were running a sub 3-hour pace or 6-hour plus, if I wasn’t prepared to pass the GU in a timely fashion, most runners weren’t willing to make a pit stop. At other times, I felt as though I were running "the option." A few runners framed their hands in the way a football player cradles the pigskin. Thank you, Tony Rice for modeling such a good passing game! I saw all ages shapes and sizes. AND, I saw only one barefoot runner.

He ran alone, this barefoot runner. Based on the success of “Born to Run” and the increased number of “FiveFingers” I thought I would see other Zola Budds in the crowd. But, this trend may take some time, and calluses to build. It’s a dramatic shift. It is a risk. It is certainly counterculturual.

I can’t tell you how often I must remind my students and myself that Jesus’ message was countercultural. What Jesus called people to was against the grain--dying to self, loving you enemies, turning the other cheek. Even learning to abide by the spirit of the law and opposed to the letter of the law is challenging, difficult and unpopular. And, to a certain degree so is running. Running makes difficult demands—it’s mentally challenging. It means surrendering to pain, pushing yourself to a physical limit. Of note, it is largely apolitical. Runners do not complain about not getting enough “play time.” In fact we’re one of the few sports where less playing time is better!

Running is not a revenue generating, high profile sport but I know a lot of people run and thanks to organizations like “Team in Training” many people who never thought they could run a marathon have. Thus, it does not surprise me that as the sport grows in popularity, or at least participation, that its countercultural roots bear new fruit. The minimalist running shoes or the barefoot runner makes a statement against a billion dollar industry—sports apparel. Many people, including the author of this blog, subscribe to the Gospel according to Nike. To entertain the notion that their technology may be unnecessary is tremendously radical, its brazen, its bold. I love it.

I think that countercultural thread speaks to the unique spirit of the sport that is both individual and communal, challenging and rewarding. So, to be consistent, I suppose my reasons for not recommending the SF Marathon amount to good reasons why a countercultural person should run it. A challenging course, freakish weather—one of the few US cities in July with temperatures in the low 50s, a disinterested fan base BUT a great GU stop. And, no shirt, no shoes = no problem.

Photo credits
SF Marathon Logo
Born to Run
Five Fingers
Golden Gate Bridge
The rose between two thorns: KT Caponigro

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