I have never been much of a runner. Childhood asthma will do that to you. But as I have grown older and increasingly fitness-conscious, I appreciate what running can do for you. As does my wife, who recently ran her first half-marathon in Philadelphia just a few weeks ago. I watched my wife train for the event, as every week she ran one mile longer than the last, slowly building herself up for the big event. On race day, she not only finished, but she placed 7,077 out of 21,000 runners, some 7,000 of whom never finished. She beat her best training time by a full 15 minutes, running so fast that my kids and I had difficulty intercepting her along the route to give her high fives.
It took my wife a full two weeks to recover from the run, which is not uncommon. Apparently, with long-distance running it can take a full day to recover, per mile run. That seems like an awfully long recovery time for any one day’s activity, and I have to marvel at the dedication of runners who would put themselves through such punishment.
So it is with no small amount of bewilderment that I read how this past weekend, the Chicago marathon suffered a pair of unlikely events. The first was when Will Caviness, a 35-year-old firefighter from North Carolina, collapsed and died just 500 yards from the finish line. As of today, an autopsy has not given any clues as to how or why Caviness died. Caviness was an experienced marathon runner, set to finish this weekend’s race in 3 hours and 17 minutes, which translates to a seven-and-a-half-minute mile. Clearly the fellow was in shape. But marathon running can be a little hard on the heart, and perhaps the strain of this particular race proved too much. After all, when the fabled Greek soldier Pheidippides ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens, the deed for which the marathon is named, the effort cost him his life.
Hopefully further examinations will give the Caviness family the answers they both need and deserve. As for Caviness himself, his community is in shock. It was not supposed to have ended this way for him. It does not seem fair. Then again, death never is.
Meanwhile, in the same race, 29-year-old Amber Miller grabbed headlines by running at 39 weeks pregnant. An avid runner and marathoner, Miller ran with the approval of her doctor, who required that she actually walk half of the marathon – which accounts for her 6:25 finish time – and had her husband on hand for support. Shortly after she crossed the finish line, Miller went into labor and delivered her daughter, June, at a healthy 7.7 lbs. Both mother and daughter are reported to be in good health. (Her life insurance agent, I would guess, is probably recovering from a nervous breakdown.)
Miller’s run has provoked a pretty substantial body of commentary, as you might imagine. While some reactions have praised Miller for her athletic dedication, others have decried her for being foolish, even reckless with the safety of her unborn child. But numerous athletes have trained while pregnant, and while Miller’s run seems unusual, it isn’t quite as much as it first appears.
That said, would I have been okay with my wife running that pregnant? No. But then again, I’m not a runner. I don’t understand what it means, and what it takes, to run for 26.2 miles. I do know that Caviness is the sixth death to mar the Chicago marathon. The last was in 2007, when a runner died of heart failure. The other four died from ehart failure, extreme overheating, or hyponatremia.
Miller, as it turns out, was at least as experienced as Caviness, if not more so. Both worked hard to put themselves through a grueling physical test. For one, it proved fatal. For the other, it proved transformative. For both, it was a knowing choice to push themselves to a place most of us dare not go, that zone beyond endurance where strange things can and do happen.
But there are many who would prefer a slower, safer life, and who can blame them? All of us must find that sweet spot in between…except for those few for whom happiness lies so far outside the realm of what we consider normal that the distinction between life and death can become a porous one. It seems to me an awful risk to take, but then again, I have heard it said from many athletes that the harder we push ourselves, the better we live. As a martial artist, I can appreciate that sentiment. The important distinction, I think is to live hard, rather than to live fast. For marathoners, I guess they end up doing a bit of both.