Get Ready, Get Set, Escape!

A story of a failed attempt to run the Vienna City Marathon; or, mastering the fine art of avoiding any and all responsibility

Of all the things that start a fire in my heart, running for a cause lies somewhere at the bottom of the list, just before ketchup and people who tell you things just so they know that you know they know…  Why, then, did I do it? Why did I sign up for the Vienna City Marathon and, more importantly, did I ever really believe I would go through with it?

Well, no. Truth be told – and this I say rarely – I’m quite a non-believer.  The reasons are numerous and will probably reveal themselves to me in twenty years’ time, when I will have successfully mastered the skill of greatness and, after finding it less sapid than expected, hired an overpriced and attractive psychiatrist to ask me about my childhood. Until then, my youthful naiveté  be indulged, I will remain critical of all things impressive that are meant to lift up our morals and come in crowds.

Undoubtedly, though, a marathon has benefits. If nothing more, it keeps people in good health, and that is by no means to be disregarded. As anyone who lives the whole four seasons will know, spring does have this special way of creeping in. Just when you think you have reached the end of your endurance and are ready to capitulate to the ever-lasting cold, it bursts out and suddenly you find yourself surrounded by lashes of blue and green.

The confusion of not knowing what to do with all this color is called asthenia and is the result of a prolonged exhaustion of the metabolism acquired during wintertime. Fatigue and weakness are normal symptoms of this time, and the only way to deal with such a state of ill being is good food and plenty of exercise. Running it out, if you will.You will need to start training 16 weeks prior to the marathon, giving you just about enough time to smooth the transition between seasons and a few more buffer days to mess everything up. “Set your goals on a daily basis, stay motivated and develop the proper mindset”, the training instructions say. Right.

The day approaches swiftly and if you’re a marathon rookie, like me, you will not appreciate all the incoming newsletters, especially not if have a record of minimizing your expectations in front of other people. Organization, participatory conditions, marathon gatherings and self-help groups, I dodged them all gracefully until the very end. I just want to run, man. But here’s the catch. You can’t “just run”, not like this, man. As if it were society’s way of tricking you into fueling it, you must become part of the running mechanism and fulfill your task as one of the many.

However, my social awkwardness finally prevailed and, not as a Rebel to a Cause, but rather as the most easy-going runner in the world, I was denied participation at the last minute. Take that, society. What followed was the long overdue proof that my priorities needed reconsidering. Friday and Saturday before the race was the time for final preparations. Race documents were distributed to all participants between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. as part of the VCM Expo “Vienna Sports World”. Surely, someone who has been training for at least a few weeks can’t possibly neglect this piece of information altogether. And yet…

As a notorious auto-saboteur of long standing, my subconscious acted out. Whether it was the impulse of self-preservation for my failing knee or the urge to still be able to say, “It’s no big deal”, I once again failed to acknowledge organizational rites and passed up an opportunity. By the time I remembered to pick up my documents, it was too late.

My mother and brother, who were in town for the weekend, felt obliged to endow me with inspirational cheers and even tried to convince me that, if I showed even the slightest interest, all could still be saved.

“NO collection of race documents on Sunday, April 17, 2011,” said the briefing on the official homepage, in bold. But explain that to your mother, who’s already turned the whole thing into a personal vendetta against my lifelong nemesis, perseverance. Vague memories of when I used to be petrified by the idea of calling a teacher on the phone begin to form in my head. Somewhere between panic and frustration I realize that I have, in fact, not grown up one bit. The next day we decided to venture off into the crisp morning and try to persuade someone to allow me to participate despite my fatal mistake, joining hundreds of others in the direction of the Reichsbrücke. My two fans and I – overdressed to the loss of all credibility – looking for anything that might resemble a marathon official. What we came across instead was the unsettling sight of people with questionable afflictions, innovative running gadgets and ferocious looking ointments displaying a decidedly poor ability to select a proper location to apply them. Is this a bad time to ask someone for a smoke?

From gel power bars to full-body plastic-bag covers, most participants were fully equipped. It seemed to me that the marathon had been transformed into an entire lifestyle – from its original mission as a healthy and enjoyable past-time into an ideological sphere. After all, organized running does require plenty of concentration, and, like any other obsession, has thought-consuming tendencies. Couples with identical outfits were shouting motivational chants at each other, and on every side expressions of excitement in at least ten different languages were heard. I remembered once meeting a Guatemalan girl who was traveling the world with the sole purpose of “doing as many marathons as possible”, and, despite my disappointment of having been shunned, I felt relieved that I didn’t belong to this community. I have plenty of other obsessions to feed.

All this against the piercing “The Final Countdown,” and then, in logical succession, of the Austrian national anthem. As the participants solemnly queued for the start, we found safe shelter behind some trees and, lurking conspiratorially in the background, watched longingly as they passed us by. At this point I couldn’t help but feel somewhat deflated for my self-obstruction, yet even that didn’t compare to being under my mother and friend’s wry looks. “You’ll do it next year,” they said comfortingly, but I knew I wouldn’t.

Shortly afterwards, the crowd had dispersed and the madness subsided. The runners and I ultimately went our separate ways – they towards the big finish in Heldenplatz, I towards a canny caffeine-selling place where I would rest my untapped legs. The reflection that came with that coffee helped me understand that I didn’t regret this episode at all – with the exception of the Billa goodie bag I would have received at the end – and that any commitment is only as definitive as you allow it to become.

After a marathon, they say, runners will experience depression. The Post-marathon Blues, a void-like feeling created by the loss of the goal, affects many of those who, as witnessed, run not only with their legs but with their heads as well. It is an uncomplicated passing state, but at least that’s one thing I don’t have to worry about this season.

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