Six hundred and six feet in running shoes hit the asphalt at the crack of the gun. One pair of feet in ragged sneakers trailed the group as the Ninth Annual Mission Bay Marathon began.
The runners streamed 26 miles through scenic Mission Bay Park, to SeaWorld and around Fiesta Island, twice. Three hundred and three, old men, young track stars, and women, would try to finish, but not the girl in the worn-out sneakers.
After the first quarter mile, the sneakers ceased operation. My sneakers' pre-marathon experience was premonitory. In high school I did a six-minute 660-yard run with a grand faint at the finish line. Most of the other runners had been working out daily, circluing their neighborhoods to get int heir six or seven miles.
At 7:30 a.m. Saturday, January 13, I mingled casually trying to look like a runner. A bearded man, about thirty, in a hooded sweatshirt, looked at my shoes and my Levi's, which scraped the pavement.
"You gonna run?" he asked with a smile.
"This is my eighth marathon, and I've finished six of 'em." He rubbed his hands together. "Marathons are really democratic. They run ya against King Kongs, studs, all kinds of people."
He eyed the ragged sneakers, and began to move on. "Just lose your baby fat, work out easy and don't kill yourself," were his parting words.
A hand-lettered cardboard sign warned, "DO NOT RUN IF YOU DO NOT ENTER. RUN THE COURSE THE OTHER 8759 HOURS IN THE YEAR, SO YOU WON'T FOUL UP THE RUNNERS WHO MAKE THIS RACE POSSIBLE!" Well, the San Diego Track Club and the American Athletics Union would just have to survive without my three-dollar fee.
Ten minutes to go. The pungent odor of nervous sweat permeated the air. It was not the buckets of wet sweat to come. Runners stripped off sweat pants and jackets. Observers, arms filled with cast-off clothing, lined North Mission Bay Drive. We massed behind the pale blue line. The fun's snap fragmented the runners. i fell to the rear immediately and hung behind until my quarter-mile finish. "You don't know what the meaning of pain is..." The words drifted from a thin, panting boy in green shorts.
From the Hilton Inn, ten minutes later, one could see the runners, bobbing like colored toothpicks around Fiesta Island. Runners stretched for miles along Highway 5, each runner bearing his entry number on his racing shirt. The number on the youngest runner's shirt covered his entire chest. "don't try to keep up my pace," panted the boy's dripping father. His nine-year-old son waved and smiled as he jogged past his old man.
The climbing sun turned the bay bluish-pink. While walking along the course, an elderly man in an orange shirt trotted passed me. Fifty feet ahead, a red-haired man leaned on his car, pointing his camera in our direction. The elderly runner paused for a drink from the camera man's water bottle and jogged on.
"Is that your favorite runner?"
"Yep. That's my dad, he's 73 years old. Ever hear of Noel "superman" Johnson?" he asked. The son of "superman" set the movie camera and bottle in the car's open window. He's the oldest runner here today," he smiled at his father's vanishing form.
"Will he finish?"
"Always does. All Dad does everyday is run, eat and sleep."
The orange shirt was just a speck above the curving road.
An overalled farmer in a white Ford truck gave me a ride back to the park. men were constructing the finish there by roping off a section with plastic flags, probably borrowed from a used car lot. A few spectators waited for the first runners to appear.
Aid Station No. 4 was across from the finish, at the 13-mile point. It was near the water, and black, white-beaked birds stood silently looking at the distant runners. These Aid Stations were manned by Track Club members at 2-1/2 mile intervals throughout the course.
A woman in a floppy blue hat held out two cups to a passing runner. "Water-Gookinaid-Oranges?" She shouted as he passed. "He's the first one here! Remember that shirt — it said East 1." Sweat flowed like resin down the runner's back.
Over a hundred blue and white cups filled with liquid waited on a card table. Two Track Club women quickly sliced oranges and filled plates. "Ask them what they want so we'll be ready!" the floppy hatted woman yelled to a woman yelled to a man standing up the path a few yards. "Water-Gookinaid-Oranges?"
SOUTH HILLS, MESA, FRESNO, L.B.C.C., WILSON H.S. — an atlas of shirts whoosed by. Some runners grabbed a cup and drank without breaking stride. Grab-gulp-toss grab-gulp toss grab-gulp-toss grab-dump-toss. Some liquid in the mouth, some dumped over the head. "Can I ask what's Gookinaid?" I whispered to another orange slicer.
"Oh, you don't run, right? Well, it's that orange liquid with glucose and things good for runners," she turned back to her bowl of oranges.
I vaguely remembered a warning on the rules sheet: "THE ELECTROLYTE REPLACEMENT SOLUTION IS COLORED ORANGE SO YOU WON'T MISTAKENLY POUR IT OVER YOUR HEAD." How many heads today were bathed in Gookinaid? The woman in charge stopped slicing for a minute and looked off into the distance.
"They say after the first 20 miles, your only halfway done." Her blue hat brim rested on her sequined sunglasses. The plates of oranges warmed in the sun.
"Here comes our first place winner..." The crowd across the field gobbled up the announcer's words. "A record for this course: two hours, 18 minutes and 6 seconds!" Applause smothered the winner's name. (Later a list showed a Doug Schmak had zoomed in with the record-breaking speed).
Aid station No. 4 was dismantled and carried across the field to the recovery area. "Some runners won't be in for another two hours," said the floppy-hatted woman as she hauled four bottles of water to the finish line. "I can only run five miles..." her voice faded wistfully.
The bright sun made the recover area too warm for relief. Runners limped in, some carrying their shoes. They crowded around the cool drink tables and stuffed orange segments into their mouths.
The area resembled a bloodless battle field. pale runners huddled under blankets, some crawling towards any bit of shade. Friends hovered near, holding cups of water to trembling lips.
A cheer sped through the crowd as the first woman crossed the finish line. She stumbled to a stop as her time was called.
"Three hours, five seconds..."
Damn it! I wanted to break three hours," she wheezed, as a blanket dropped over her head.
Why do you people run marathons? The exhausted runners asked could only smile. Others offered.
"It's a challenge."
"Because it proves something."
"Um, I really don't know..."
The first 60 finishers were asked to check in for their "Merchandise Awards," marathon t-shirts would be given to the first 240 finishers. And parchment certificates would be sent to all finishing in under four hours. Maybe a hamburger and a lemonade at the post-race picnic would revive a 26-mile runner. If he could find the energy to eat or drink. Or maybe an award at the 12:45 ceremony would help. I didn't stay to find out.