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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. This is Patriot's Day in Massachusetts, a state holiday and the date of the Boston Marathon. It's the oldest annual marathon and among the more exclusive. About 20,000 runners finished the race last year. That's half the number who trooped through the streets of Chicago last time around.

To qualify for Boston, runners have to post fast races elsewhere. Times vary by age. For men between 18 and 34, it was three hours and 10 minutes this year. But there's another time that some considered more important. Four hours and 29 minutes, the time Oprah Winfrey ran when she completed the Marine Corps Marathon here in Washington a decade ago. Depending on who you talk to, Oprah gets the credit or the blame for inspiring so many people to get out and run 26.2 miles, however long it takes.

Marathoners, why do you do it? Is it a race or a personal accomplishment? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. And we've got an email challenge for you. What's your pre-race ritual? A massage? A martini? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later, writer Susan Jacoby joins us on the rise of the media eco-chamber and the demise of fairness in American life. But first, to Boston and the marathon. We begin with John Powers, a staff writer for the Boston Globe. And he was at the finish line in Boston, where he covered today's marathon. And he joins us now by phone from his office. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. JOHN POWERS (Staff Writer, Boston Globe): Thank you. It's a very historic day in this most historic marathon, both in the men's and the women's races today.

CONAN: And why is that?

Mr. POWERS: Robert Cheruiyot from Kenya became the first man since Bill Rogers in 1980 to win four of these things. And the women's race was the closest in history, two second difference between Dire Tune of Ethiopia and Alevtina Biktimirova of Russia. In addition, Tune, at 22, became the youngest woman since Joan Benoit in 1979.

CONAN: So, great day. Was it a nice day for a race?

Mr. POWERS: It was a lovely day. After last year's near biblical conditions, the rain and wind, it was about mid-50s, some cloud cover, a little bit of a stiff east wind. But it was a wonderful day, given what we have become used to here. As a matter of fact, Cheruiyot was on course record pace for a fair amount of it, until he came to the Boston flash(ph) and he got with the east wind.

CONAN: Now, historic for another reason, too. This was the first year the Boston Athletic Association allowed ads at the marathon.

Mr. POWERS: That's right. You know, I think Boston was always a little bit late to modern days. They were really - they didn't want to offer prize money for many, many years. Actually, up to 1986, your award here was a gold medal and a bowl of canned beef stew. So I think it's become basically - they do understand that it's become an advertising world. It allows them to give more prize money and to get a better field. So to be honest, most folks didn't notice it.

CONAN: And this year's marathon also boasted the largest prize.

Mr. POWERS: Right. Exactly. I think one thing you hear is that this has become a huge moneymaking endeavor for athletes. For example, Robert Cheruiyot won the World Marathon Majors title last year, which is the five major marathons. And he got half a million dollars just for doing that. So this has become a very attractive marathon, as is New York, as is London. But Boston attracts people mostly for the history.

CONAN: Mostly for the history, as the oldest race and, I guess, going back how far exactly?

Mr. POWERS: This was the 112th marathon, and what is interesting about it is a number of athletes don't like to run here because it's so hilly. It's difficult to run a fast time. As a matter of fact, Robert Cheruiyot ran 2:07:46 today. He said last week in London, I'm doing 2:04. It was a kier also enough to the Americans because they actually already held their Olympic trials, but foreigners can make the team for Beijing by running here. And this was the key question. Would Cheruiyot's victory here be enough to get him to Beijing?

CONAN: And will it?

Mr. POWERS: It's very political. What they think is that Martin Lel, who won in London, he will certainly be on the team. Samuel Wanjiru probably will be on the team. But Boston, you know, it's hard to run a fast time. If they look at time only, he wouldn't make it. But anyone who can win Boston four times and win it as he did today, going away - he won it by well over a minute over Abderrahime Bouramdane from Morocco. He certainly has big credentials here.

CONAN: John Powers, thanks for your time.

Mr. POWERS: Thank you.

CONAN: John Powers is a staff writer for the Boston Globe. He covers Olympic sports and the Boston Marathon for their sports section, with us by phone from his office after covering the finish of the Boston Marathon earlier today.

Well, we're asking listeners, marathoners who are listeners, why do you do it? And is it, well, for personal accomplishment or do you consider it a race? 800-989-8255. And let's begin with Craig. Crag with us from Rochester, New York.

CRAIG (Caller): Hey. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

CRAIG: I ran my first marathon really just to see what I was made of. And then I kept running because it really shows you what's deep inside and allows you to really take a good look of yourself. It feels great when you're done.

CONAN: And how did you do?

CRAIG: Well, I ran four hours and 17 minutes. And that was the first marathon. And it wasn't a race for me, except against myself. But I think it was just an amazing accomplishment. And the irony was the journey to get to the race was harder than the race itself.

CONAN: You mean the training period?

CRAIG: The training period, exactly.

CONAN: And how long did that take you?

CRAIG: That was a total of about four months, give and take. And it didn't start out as marathon training. It started out as just wanting to become healthy. I had smoked for over 20 years and was very unhealthy. And one day, I just started walking and running and walking and running and it just kept going until I reached 26.2 miles.

CONAN: And do you plan to run anymore?

CRAIG: Oh, I'd love to. I'd love it.

CONAN: Thanks.

CRAIG: Absolutely.

CONAN: Well, good luck to you, Craig.

CRAIG: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

CRAIG: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Joining us now is Gabriel Sherman. He's a special correspondent for The New Republic and author of an article on Slate called "Running with Slowpokes." He's completed a total of six marathons himself and joins us now from our bureau in New York. And nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. GABRIEL SHERMAN (Special Correspondent, The New Republic; Author,"Running with Slowpokes"): Thanks for having me, Neil.

CONAN: And your argument is that the vast influx of slowpokes and newbies have, well, really changed the marathon.

Mr. SHERMAN: Well, Neil, what I wanted to look at was how the democratization of marathon running has changed the sport from its roots in the late '70s. Historically, marathon running was a much different affair. It appealed to a smaller group of elite runners who really went out there to race the marathon and run their hearts out. And now the race has changed a bit, where we have callers like Craig who look to it more as a lifestyle choice. And it's a race that attracts people who want to get in shape but aren't necessarily focused on the types of times that they're running.

CONAN: And what's wrong with that?

Mr. SHERMAN: Well, you know, it's changed a bit. And as somebody who's spent their time training and really racing the race, it's changed more into less of a competition and more into, as I point out in the piece, somewhat humorously, more of a circus or a spectacle. And, you know, they're great civic affairs for cities, but, you know, anyone who trains races and runners that I speak to, really feel that the race has lost something in terms of its competitive element.

CONAN: Yet, even in 1970, when I guess you would argue that the sport was more pure, there were a lot of people who ran in marathons. You would think even the vast majority of those who ran in marathons didn't think - necessarily think they were going to win.

Mr. SHERMAN: Well, the original New York City Marathon had only 127 runners competing. And the numbers of marathon running nationwide was a fraction of the numbers that we see today. In 1976, there was only about 25,000 or so runners completing in marathons, which sounds like a big number. When you compare it to the roughly half million who turn out now, it's a much smaller percentage. And the average times of marathons have slowed dramatically. You know...

CONAN: Well, wait. If you got 40,000 people running in Chicago, of course they're going to slow.

Mr. SHERMAN: Sure, of course.

CONAN: So, is - even the elite runners, is their time as fast as always?

Mr. SHERMAN: Sure, the elite runners are actually getting faster. You know, the types of training is becoming much more scientific and the elite runners are really able to run at a much faster pace. You know, we went below 2:05 which was a dramatic record being broken in London and Berlin.

CONAN: And in a country that's plagued with obesity and with smoking, what's wrong with that? I mean, the elite runners are going faster than ever and there are tens of thousands of people out there getting some exercise.

Mr. SHERMAN: Sure. I mean, I guess philosophically, there's nothing wrong with more and more folks running. In fact, it's a great thing. One of the points that I was raising in the piece, and it's touched off an interesting discussion online, was how the accomplishment of running a marathon has changed and you know, running a 10K race or a 5K or a shorter neighborhood race doesn't carry the same cache at a cocktail party, or even is not even necessarily a big enough goal to motivate somebody to run. So the marathon has really become a destination event where someone will set a goal to just complete it which - you know, the interesting thing is that it's gotten people into the race who aren't necessarily athletically prepared to run such a difficult endurance challenge, and we've seen a lot of health issues and safety issues raised as a result of that, which I think the sport of running is only now beginning to address and adequately prepare for.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. This is Amad(ph), Amad with us from North Carolina.

AMAD (Caller): Good afternoon, everyone.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

AMAD: I started running back in 1960 when I watched the Rome Olympic Games on TV and Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia became the first person to ever run a marathon backward. But I run my first marathon in 1977, and that was the New York City Marathon. The guest you have on, I really feel misses the point. The major point for many marathon runners is that they know they aren't going to run 2:07 or 2:08, but you want to know what you're made of, like those who climbed Mount Everest, those want to swim the English Channel. Running has become almost a spiritual thing for many of us, and I've loved it. I've done over 50 marathons, with the best time of 2:54. So those who run and do a 150 miles a week, they have a much more - they are much more able to be in the front and win that kind of cash money. There's only one person that can win, but the 24,999 can all compete.

CONAN: Well, 2:54 is hardly a shabby time at all, Amad. And by the way, I think probably Phidippides was the first run to run a marathon in barefeet, but that's going back a ways.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMAD: I will take it.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. Good luck with your next one. Bye-bye. And stay with us, if you would, Gabriel Sherman. We're also going to be talking with John Bingham who writes the "No Need for Speed" column in Runner's World Magazine when we come back, so stay with us. If you'd like to get in on the conversation, our phone number is 800-989-8255. And we've got that email challenge for you: What's your pre-race ritual? The address is talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan and it's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about the strange allure of the marathon race today, the day of the Boston Marathon. We want to hear your marathon story, plus we've got an email challenge for you. What's your pre-race ritual? Pasta? Prayer? Email us, talk@npr.org

This from Sherry in Berkley California: "As a high school student, I would often stay home on the day of our half-mile fitness test since I hated running. A friend convinced me to train for a marathon as a way to raise money for charity. Our first run was three miles and I almost didn't make it. However, I slowly became addicted to marathon running and to marathons. At 24, I've run six marathons, a handful of shorter distances and one triathlon. I now find marathons are becoming 'old hat' and I'm on the lookout for a new challenge. P.S. My pre-race ritual is eating hordes of pizza with my best friend, Suzanne."

CONAN: Our guest is Gabriel Sherman, a special correspondent for the New Republic and author of the piece, "Running with Slowpokes," which appeared on Slate. And joining us now is John Bingham who writes a column for Runner's World Magazine called "No Need for Speed," and co-author of the books "Running for Mortals" and "Marathoning for Mortals," among others, and he's been kind enough to join us here at Studio Three. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. JOHN BINGHAM (Columnist, Runner's World Magazine; Author): Good afternoon. Glad to be here, thank you.

CONAN: And what's the appeal of the marathon? Is it enough just to finish it?

Mr. BINGHAM: I think the appeal of the marathon these days - and I think Gabriel made a good point, it is a personal journey. It is a personal search for something. And in the old days, in what I would call the "nylon shorts generation," it was galvanized in the effort of trying to achieve some arbitrary time goal. And of course, Boston is famous for that and they set those arbitrary time goals.

These days, though, it is more of a lifestyle. It is an Everest that we can all climb. I think that as people have recognized that they can be a part of this second running boom, they want to be a part of it and they just can't be bothered with these old school notions that the only way to finish feeling good is to be falling over and feeling like you couldn't take another step.

CONAN: Yet Gabriel's also got a point when he says a lot of these races have become like circuses.

Mr. BINGHAM: Well, they have been. I think most of us in the industry would take 1998, June of 1998, with the first Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in San Diego. They had bands at every mile. They had cheerleaders. It was the first event, and we call them "events" really, not races, where you had no incentive to finish fast. Runners and walkers would go to a mile marker and they would dance and listen to a band. They would go on to the next mile marker. So it did become the sort of 26.2-mile street party and the idea was to be there. Many, many charity runners were there and it became something that was fun to be a part of and there was no need to rush through it.

CONAN: And what about the other point that Gabriel was making that a lot of people who are not trained rigorously for this can hurt themselves running marathons?

Mr. BINGHAM: Well, you can. You know, I ran the Chicago Marathon with Michael Fay(ph), he's a New-Zealander who's involved in the America's Cup and I asked him why there were so many great sailors from New Zealand. He said, because there's so many awful sailors in New Zealand. It's just that the bottom of the pyramid is so big. And I think that's what we're seeing now. We're building this bottom of the pyramid, and we're all not going to be fantastic. Not everyone is going to be as committed, but as you said, we had - the last Olympics, we had a gold and a silver - I mean a silver and a bronze which we've never had before. World records are dropping. So we believe that this - the bottom, this bottom that the more people that are in it, it pushes the top higher.

CONAN: There is some element of ridicule in your story on Slate, Gabriel Sherman. "Running was once appeared as sport. During a recent run in New York, in Central Park, I dodged groups of marathon trainees festooned with heartrate monitors and space-age breathable fabrics that looked like they emerged from some NASA lab. A constellation of coaches and massage therapists, chiropractors and other gurus now pedal services to marathon masses."

Well, certainly it's become a high-tech and a big business.

Mr. SHERMAN: Sure. I mean, one of the points that I was interested in raising, and I think it's a valid point of discussion is, you know, running historically was a purest sport. You know, you needed just a pair of shoes and some shorts and a T-shirt. You could go out the door, you didn't need a gym, you didn't need really any equipment to enjoy it. And now, between all the high-tech electronics, from heart rate monitors to watches, to GPSs, you know, we've crowded the sport full of technology and equipment that you know, many people forget the reason why they did it in the first places. Running is a way to escape the stress and pressure of daily life and that is now encroached on what was a very pure kind of sport.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Mr. BINGHAM: The point on that though, and now I think he makes a very good point. We make a distinction between the sport of running and the activity of running. There is the sport of running, and I think the sport of running is as pure as it's ever been. But the activity of running is now bigger than it's ever been and I think it's dangerous to try to conclude that those are the same things. There is a sport of running. We saw that celebrated with the Olympic trials and the Boston Marathon. And there's also the activity of running which we're - what most of the people in the second running boom are part of.

CONAN: Let's get some more callers in on the conversation. This is Ed. Ed's with us from Palo Alto in California.

ED (Caller): Hi, thanks for having me today.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ED: I just want to say I've been running since high school. I actually ran in the Olympic trials last November. But you know, when I first started out, I was not a talented runner at all. In fact, I remember the first day I went to practice my freshman year in high school, the coach must have seen the look on my face when he said the guys were going for an eight-mile run, and he said, Ed, you can run with the girls' team today.

So I feel like since then, that was about 10 years ago, I've just continued to put in work and one thing I love about the marathon is it's one of the few things where you can really have an exact measure of your improvement and learn that improvement is so directly correlated with the amount of work you put in.

CONAN: And have you gotten better?

ED: Have I gotten better?

CONAN: Yeah.

ED: Well, I think so. I went from - in high school, it was hard for me to run one mile under six minutes. In order to qualify for the trials I had to run 26.2 miles in under two hours and 22 minutes, so that's about five minutes and 20 seconds per mile.

CONAN: Congratulations.

ED: Thank you very much.

CONAN: That's - those are pretty terrific times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ED: Well, I'm still working on it so I hope that I'll be able to get even faster. I'm 29 years old and they say that you peak when you're in your late 20s and early 30s, so I hope that I haven't peaked quite yet.

CONAN: All right, Ed. Thanks very much for the call.

ED: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Dave. Dave is calling us from Detroit.

DAVE (Caller): Hi. I think a point has been missed about the great appeal of the marathon and actually running in general. It's the only sport in the world where I, with a best time of 3:08, and I'm slowing down now, can be on the same road and in the same race with the world's best. The night before at the hotel with them, at the dinner, the parties after. There's no other sport that lets us be with the world's elites. We're not going to race with them because they're long gone, but we're part of the same event. That's a great appeal.

CONAN: Gabriel Sherman, what do you think about that?

Mr. SHERMAN: Well, I think there's a difference there. I think some runners, like this caller, 3:08 is a very respectable time, and I think there's a difference between running a three-hour marathon or 3:15 in a six-hour marathon, and I don't know where the sport should draw the line. I think race directors and running clubs should - that's a conversation they should have. But I think there's a sort of a difference between folks who were going out and running their fastest, versus folks who are walking and running very slowly, you know, taking six, sometimes even seven hours out there to complete the race.

And I think the sport should have an interesting conversation on figuring out where the sort of line should be drawn about people who are there to run and people who are there for a different, sort of, more lifestyle purpose.

CONAN: Dave, thanks very much and congratulations.

DAVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Paul on his pre-race ritual. "The night before a race, I came home from work and drank a 24 oz. beer and went up for a stretchout run. I felt great, so I figured... The result? A five-minute first mile foam at 5K. I've opted for the more accepted carb-loading from there on out." That's from Paul, with us by email.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And let's go to Allison. Allison's with us from Tulare in California.

ALLISON (Caller): Hi, Neal. Well, I come from a different angle. I am one who's known as a "runner's widow." My husband and I were married for almost 16 years, and he was a great college runner and he's been participating in marathons for years. In fact, someone mentioned of the first Rock 'n' Roll Marathon and he was there for that. But you know, for him to compete on that level, in order for him to think for training to be good, he has to run a 120 miles a week. So it takes away a lot of time from our family and so on, but we love him and we support him and we know that he's going to do great whatever he decides to do, whenever his next race is. And I think he is going to participate in the next Rock 'n' Roll Marathon.

CONAN: John Bingham, people can get obsessed with this.

Mr. BINGHAM: Well, I think people can get obsessed with it at any level. I don't think - I mean, everybody's called in, it's great, and there's some wonderful times in the Olympic trials qualify that's fantastic. But I think when you take someone who is in a social environment that doesn't support them, and they decide to run a marathon, and they know going in that the very best they could possibly hope to do might be five or five and a half hours, they've got to be just as obsessive about it as somebody who's going to try to run it in sub-three.

It is a sport, an activity that requires dedication and discipline, and your best is going to be whatever that best is. And no one can judge what that is for you.

CONAN: And just because a lot of people can do it doesn't mean they can do it easily. This is grueling.

Mr. BINGHAM: It is grueling, and I respect the people who put in the time and prepare and then finish at whatever level is their best.

CONAN: Allison, how's your husband doing?

ALLISON: He's doing great, and actually his - he's been bumping up his mileage and he's training for the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in San Diego, and in fact, yesterday morning he was up before church watching Deena Kastor win at Boston for the Olympic time trials.

CONAN: And she ran a great race, too.

ALLISON: Oh yeah, she was quick.

CONAN: Allison, thanks very much.

ALLISON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to Daniel. Daniel's calling us also from California.

DANIEL (Caller): Hi!

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DANIEL: Well, I was just wondering about these kinds of comments, the judgment that people that aren't as good at running almost don't deserve to be at one of these larger events, whether it's a race or not. I noticed in New York that the elite runners have their own course for the beginning of the race. They don't even run on the same streets. They start at a different time and they are long gone. And it seems to me it would be similar to a game of flag football on a parking lot outside of the Super Bowl. And I'd be surprised if the players and the teams, if the New York Giants were like - wow, you know, they shouldn't be allowed to be playing flag football, this is serious.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much.

Gabriel Sherman, what's been your experience? You've completed six marathons yourself, and you didn't say what your times were, but I'm assuming they're pretty good?

Mr. SHERMAN: They're OK. You know, I was similar to the Olympic marathon qualifier who called in. Not nearly as fast, but I was never a talented runner myself. I ran cross-country for a year in high school and after college picked it up and trained hard and got faster. And my personal best is two hours and fifty-six minutes. Not by any standard a fast time...

CONAN: By my standard a fast time.

Mr. SHERMAN: But what I really enjoyed about the sport and, you know, one of the points raised in the piece is that I set a goal and trained as hard as possible to reach it. And I really approached it from a point of view that the marathon was something that you're really going to try to run as fast as you can, and work as hard as you can. And I didn't really want to tell folks at a cocktail party that oh, I was running the New York City Marathon. It wasn't about a lifestyle or a certain activity choice. For me, it was really trying to set a goal and race as fast as I could and accomplish my goal. And obviously, there's a lot of people who are faster than me and I just wanted to set my own goal. And that's really one of the points that I was trying to make in this piece.

CONAN: But did running with 36,000 of your closest friends spoil the experience in any way?

Mr. SHERMAN: Not necessarily. You know, the New York City Marathon is good about separating the runners at different paces, but I will say, I've been in slower races where they don't have the same level of organization, where you'll line up in a group that's around your speed and there'll be people who'll run a much slower pace all lined up on the starting line.

And the first half a mile of a race can be very chaotic and on some level dangerous, where you have runners of all different speeds kind of colliding. It's a big traffic jam, and I've seen runners trip and get injured because there's, you know, one runner running five minutes per mile, and another running eleven minutes per mile. And that difference can create some traffic.

So, I think that's one issue. And the other issue that I think it's an interesting debate to have is the health risk posed by the democratization of running and attracting thousands of folks into the marathon. You know, the Chicago Marathon last year had a serious issue with heat exhaustion, and they actually canceled the race halfway through because the temperatures had risen so much.

And you know, you have runners out there for five and six hours, the human body necessarily isn't prepared to do that, and there's actually a risk of over-hydration where you have runners spending hours out there in the sun consuming a lot of water, and if they don't consume a sports drink or some other form of sugar, they can get their blood sugar out of balance and actually, runners have suffered a heart attack.

So I think there's some serious issues relating to health and safety that is a good debate for race organizers and runners to have.

CONAN: That's Gabriel Sherman of The New Republic and author of a piece called "Running With Slowpokes." Also with us is John Bingham who writes the "No Need for Speed" column in Runner's World. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

And John Bingham, I couldn't help but notice that you took exception to...

Mr. BINGHAM: Well, I did because this is one of the most pernicious myths around that there is - there are deaths in marathons, and it's from the..

CONAN: Serendipity(ph) himself fell down, at the end.

Mr. BINGHAM: Well, he did, but it's not the five, six, seven-hour marathoners that are having the problems out there. It's the guy who hasn't trained, and they're typically young males who are typically in their early 30s, and the death I saw in Chicago last year was not somebody who thought they could finish in five or six hours. People do take that risk, and if they're not paying attention - I was out there on the course. I worked the Chicago course. They did a great job and they closed it because of their concerns about the health and welfare of every runner out there, not just the slowpokes.

CONAN: We've been asking e-mailers for their pre-race rituals. This from Dean in San Francisco. "Not only does pizza work great as a pre/post-marathon food, it works well during the run, as well. I always carry a cell phone and a credit card and some pizza chains will deliver on the fly, while you're running." Hawaiian-style, he says, works best.

This from "D" in Fort Myers in Florida. "My regime - well, I'm not really the healthiest. Two glasses of red wine and pasta the night before. Red Bull for breakfast and after the race, a Big Mac."

And here's an anonymous contribution. "My father's office was in the old Boston Athletic Club in Exeter Street where the Boston Marathon ended. Early on race day we would take a huge picnic lunch, decamp to his office where he had parking space and wait for the finish. In over 70 years of doing this, I saw many of the great names in Boston Marathon history cross the finish line. I well remember the first non-legal female, as well as the first legal female runner.

There was, of course, a big controversy in the past when women were not allowed to enter the Boston Marathon, and well, some snuck into the race. Once famously snuck into the race to show that yes, indeed, women could do it. And of course, there are now Olympic Marathons, as well.

I wonder, John Bingham, what's your pre-race ritual?

Mr. BINGHAM: My pre-race ritual is really pretty similar to I think what a lot of the elite athletes do. I mean, I'm always nervous before a race. I've completed 45 marathons so I think I've got a pretty good sense of what it means to run that kind of a distance. It's typically the night before, the sort of traditional pasta party, but light. And then in the morning, I have what I like to call an "Elvis Presley breakfast." It's a bagel with some peanut butter and a banana.

CONAN: Uh-huh. Gabriel Sherman, you've completed six. What's your pre-race ritual?

Mr. SHERMAN: It's actually very similar to John's. I enjoy usually some sort of pasta dinner the evening before, and the morning of the race I'll try to eat very simple carbohydrates, either a bagel with some peanut butter and a banana, or a bagel and a sports bar. Something, you know, that's going to settle easily, because you're going to be out there breathing hard and you don't want anything to get you cramped up.

CONAN: And this last email from Cheryl(ph) in Portland, Oregon. "This September I'm running the Medoc Marathon in Bordeaux, France. Participants run through over 50 chateaux in the famous wine region. And every two miles, you partake in a local wine tasting such as that of Lafite Rothschild. Oysters, Pano chocolate(ph) and pate also appear along the route, in case you get hungry. Everyone is required to dress in costume. And as the Web site states, spoilsports, thugs and record seekers are not invited. The grand prize is your weight in wine. I'm a chef and a long-time runner. I can't imagine anything more fabulous than this.

Gentlemen, thank you for your time today. Gabriel Sherman, a special correspondent for the New Republic. John Powers writes for the Boston Globe and John Bingham writes the "No Need for Speed" column in Runner's World Magazine.

Coming up, we'll be talking about the "Age of American Unreason." Stay with us.

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