Marathoners embody Baltimore's stamina

October 16, 2001|By Dan Buccino

WITH OUR mayor vowing to make Baltimore a "hard target" for terrorists, our collective strength will be measured in endurance, a resolve tested over decades.

While we begin that collective journey, training for the inaugural Baltimore Marathon, which has been scheduled for Saturday, has afforded many miles for observation of Baltimore and hours for reflection on perseverance.

Indeed, Baltimore is the home of resilience. To survive and thrive, and even run a marathon in Baltimore, requires us to do more than just love city life.

We must look actively for what's strong in people, not just what's wrong with them, and to maintain the marathoner's training mantra: Start slow, small steps, quick feet, head up, relax, face hills.

With test scores rising and crime falling, Baltimore has been on the rebound.

Despite the presence of outstanding cultural and educational institutions, "The Greatest City in America" is best known as home to the rough-and-tumble Super Bowl Champion Ravens and the "Rocks": Street-fighter turned heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman, and reformed convict turned actor and brilliant director Charles Dutton.

With countless Formstone facades and baseball's Iron Man, Cal Ripken Jr., Baltimore is surely "Rock-ville" as much as it is "Charm City." We've always been a "hard" target.

A marathon, 26.2 miles of willpower and endurance, fits well into this tradition, better than a more glamorous event. Linebackers are bigger stars in Baltimore these days than quarterbacks. The winners of the marathon will undoubtedly be feted at City Hall like our other grizzled champs.

"The City That Reads" always sounded far too effete in a nitty-gritty post-industrial city that quickly became better known as "The City That Breeds," "The City That Bleeds" and, more recently, given the alarming asthma rates, "The City That Wheezes."

Though health indices are improving, wheezing runners completing the marathon will become a new symbol of strength and resilience for Baltimore. After all, you hardly need muscles to run a marathon - just lungs.

With more than 6,000 marathon registrants, "The City That Runs - Long and Hard" might work, especially as CitiStat, CrimeStat and KidStat have begun to hold government accountable.

Baltimore is running again, in more ways than one. And Baltimore just may have the tenacity to sustain those changes.

As we rehearse our collective responses to terrorism, training for the marathon has revealed another overlapping component of endurance.

It will be a psychological challenge almost more than it will be a physical one: Will we have what it takes mentally to persevere? Our nation's newly renamed "Operation Enduring Freedom" must be about endurance as much as it is about freedom.

As just one drawn from many Baltimore examples of resilience, Chick Webb, the partially disabled drummer from East Baltimore, set out on his own physical and musical marathon nearly a century ago.

Webb refused to organize himself around what he couldn't do and established himself as one of the first enormously successful Big Band leaders of the Jazz Age, "the little giant of the big noise."

Like the marathoners and our aching joints, Webb was an early personification of Hemingway's adage: "The world breaks everyone, and after, some are strong at the broken places."

As we contemplate the endurance that will be necessary to sustain our new, multifaceted war on terrorism, we can look to the forthcoming marathon as another in the opening campaigns to build the necessary strength.

And as Baltimore continues to trudge successfully through its own urban marathon with a hot housing market and falling crime rates, we will look down many neglected streets to see more runners emerging, training to go the distance. With revived determination and relentless preparation, for the marathon and for security, Baltimore will be a harder target and a stronger city.

Dan Buccino is a Baltimore psychotherapist and on the clinical faculties of the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

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