Marathon field sees growth at back of pack

October 12, 2007|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Reporter

Jerome Footman is the antithesis of a die-hard marathoner: heavyset and of middle age, with a plodding gait.

Yet, tomorrow morning he will be one of about 3,000 entrants running in the Under Armour Baltimore Marathon.

Footman has no delusion of victory. Twice, the Reservoir Hill resident has completed the 26.2-mile race, finishing far back. Last year, he chugged in at 6 hours, 38 1/2 minutes - good for 2,152nd place out of 2,174 finishers.

Seeing him raise his arms in triumph, you'd have thought he had won.

"When I finish the race, I start crying," Footman, 54, said. "This is the biggest challenge of my life. People pass me. So what? I'm out there fighting against myself. I'm learning who I am."

More and more, running experts say, marathons are populated by people such as Footman - runners who are far from racers, whose only goal is to finish, no matter how long it takes. And their numbers are booming.

"For the vast majority of people today, the marathon is no longer a race but a survival test," said Joe Henderson, a longtime runner who has written 25 books on the sport. "It's a badge of courage, a sense of accomplishment where runners can glory in the fact they're back in the pack."

It's a misnomer to even call a marathon a run, Henderson said, "because the biggest growth has come from people who walk it."

Statistics bear him out. In 1976, 26 percent of the runners who completed the Maryland Marathon (the precursor of the Baltimore race) did so in less than three hours. By 2006, that number had slipped to 3 percent. Thirty years ago, 81 percent of those who finished the Maryland Marathon did it in less than four hours. By last year, that figure had plummeted to 37 percent.

Over the same period, participation has exploded. Tomorrow's marathon has drummed up more than three times the entrants of its predecessors in the mid-1970s.

The conclusion is obvious, Henderson said: "The growth [in marathon popularity] is coming from the back."

The caboose includes folks such as Gretchen Howard, 66, a teacher from Montgomery County who finished last year's race with the day's third-slowest time: 7 hours, 2 minutes, 19 seconds.

Never mind that most people were gone when she strode in, having walked the entire route.

"It was an exhilarating feeling," said Howard of Garrett Park. "I wanted to see if I could do it while I'm still able, and I did."

Her time wasn't important. Howard and her son, Jonathan, marched along, stopping at several aid stations to bandage her bleeding toes.

"We passed some neighborhood kids playing basketball," she said. "My son shot around with them for a couple of minutes. Then we moved on out."

Such goings-on during a marathon would have been considered sacrilege during the running boom of the 1970s, said John Bingham, a distance runner and co-author of the book, Marathoning for Mortals.

"In the old days, marathons were the exclusive right of very fit runners who saw these races as final exams," Bingham said. "Now we have `lifestyle' runners with social needs asking, `What's the rush? Everyone gets the same shirts, the same medals.'"

Those relaxed attitudes don't cheapen the sport, Bingham said.

"Just because you walk/run a marathon doesn't mean you're dumbing it down," he said. "Look at golf. The fact that lots of people are out there hacking away for 18 holes doesn't make Tiger Woods any less of an athlete."

If the marathon had a par, Clarence Wilson Jr. probably wouldn't break it. Five times, the Aberdeen man has run the Baltimore race. Last year, he hustled in at 6:17:11. Tomorrow is another day. What price, self-esteem?

"I do it to complete, not compete," said Wilson, 50, a retired Army master sergeant. "People say, `What was your time?'

"I say, `What's the difference? I finished.'"

Attitudes such as Wilson's are prevalent among the new breed of marathoners, said Jeff Galloway, a former Olympian and renowned running guru.

"Crossing that finish line is one of the truly high points in a person's life," Galloway said. "Staying on your feet and moving forward for 26 miles is one of the few achievements that almost everyone in society has respect for - even if you're not running."

This time last year, Rosalind McNeill was in the dumps. A single parent, the 42-year-old Baltimore woman had recently lost her job and needed a pick-me-up. Completing her hometown marathon would do it.

She sobbed the whole way.

"My [four] kids kept calling my cell phone, telling me to keep going," McNeill said.

It took nearly seven hours, but she finished the race ahead of the last five stragglers.

"I thought, `If I can do this, I can do anything,'" said McNeill, who is working again.

David Wing entered last year's marathon - his first - with one goal.

"I knew I didn't want to be dead last," said the 53-year-old Myersville man.

His time (6:06:03) was forgotten in the fervor Wing felt in finishing. His framed race bib hangs in the hall of his Frederick County home.

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