Page 2 columnist
Trouble can come at you from any direction these days, like being chased through a crowded parking lot by a pack of vicious stray dogs, knowing they want to kill you, but not knowing why -- or being hit by a wing that has just fallen off a military jet plane that ran out of gas and exploded. ... The world situation has become so nervous and wrong that disasters that would have been inconceivable two years ago are almost commonplace today. They are not our fault, to be sure, but still we live in fear of them -- and so do professional athletes.I learned these things and many others on my recent assignment to Hawaii, where I did some special coverage of the Marathon and evaluated some of the newest Nike equipment, along with my usual public muttering, intense listening and distended body shots in the evening, when the sun sank toward Japan.... On these nights I spoke extensively with players, coaches and one University president who must confront and cope with the fears of modern athletes on an almost daily basis.
My old friend, June Jones, head football coach at the state university, told me more and more of his younger players are plagued with a genuine fear of dogs.
"Dogs?" I said. "That's weird -- these islands are full of dogs, thousands and thousands of them.
"I know," he replied. "They are like cockroaches, I hate the bastards."
I laughed. "Don't be silly, June," I warned him. "Are you trying to tell me that the University of Hawaii football program has languished for all these years because the players are afraid of dogs?"
"Oh, no," he said quickly. "Not just dogs -- about half my freshmen believe they'll be killed if they ever fly on an airplane."
"What's so weird about that?" I snapped.
He stared at me for a few seconds, saying nothing, and then he turned away.
I wanted to tell him that I was just kidding about the UH football program languishing (the exact opposite is happening, in fact: Hawaii has the look of a school on a fast track to becoming a major football power -- but more on that later), but just then I was seized by two very small women from Russia who laughed and said they had something to show me.
Which was true. They had a gold Russian coin with my face on it. I was stunned and even shocked, but not for long. Of course, these were Marathon winners, wild girls from St. Petersburg who won here last year, extremely impressive little beauties who had made such a fool of me last year. I knew their names, but this incredible gold coin had momentarily scrambled my brain.
"Don't worry," the more aggressive one told me gently. "We forgive you. Meet me at the finish line tomorrow and I will give you a big Russian kiss."
"Where is Sean Penn?" asked the other. "I want to kiss him, too"
"Forget it," I told her. "Sean has gone to Iraq, maybe forever."
"So what?" said the first girl. "Who needs a screwhead like Sean Penn? I would rather kiss a dog."
I smiled and wished them goodnight, so we could all get a few hours sleep before the big race. It was getting late in balmy Honolulu.
|***** ***** *****|
We arrived at the starting point sometime around 4 in the morning -- two hours before starting time -- but the place was already a madhouse. Half the runners had apparently been up all night, unable to sleep and too cranked to talk. The air was foul with the stench of human feces and Vaseline. By 5 o'clock, huge lines had formed in front of the bank of chemical privies set up by Doc Barahol and his people. Pre-race diarrhea is a standard nightmare at all marathons, and Honolulu is no different. There are a lot of good reasons for dropping out of a race, but bad bowels is not one of them. Will they finish? That is the question. They all want that "finishers" T-shirt. Winning is out of the question for all but a handful: Mbarak Hussein, Jimmy Muindi ... Ondoro Osorio maybe. These are the racers. For them, this is a race.
The others, the runners, were lined up in ranks behind the racers and it would take them a while to get started. The top Kenyans were halfway finished, running four abreast, before the back of the pack of 30,000 tossed their Vaseline bottles to the side and passed the starting line and they knew, even then, that not one of them would catch a glimpse of the winner until long after the race was over. Maybe get his autograph at the banquet ...
We are talking about two distinct groups here, two entirely different marathons. The Racers would all be finished and half drunk by 8 in the morning, or just about the time that the pack was pouring through the halfway point. They run smoothly, almost silently, with a fine-tuned stride. No wasted energy, no fighting the street or bouncing along like a jogger. These people flow, and they flow very fast. Watching the Racers race is like watching Kobe Bryant in the open court or Michael Vick turning the corner. Each one of them is literally one in a billion. A racer in full stride is an elegant thing to see.
The marathon has become too big for the original group to handle; it is now the fourth largest in the world. When I first came to cover the spectacle in December of 1980, there were 8,000 runners. Today there are more than 30,000 -- 10,000 more than last year alone. The small group of individuals who have run this race for years are overwhelmed, and the strain is obvious. This year, the race brought in more than $62.5 million to the local economy, the bulk of which is spent on painkillers and bottled water.
Marathon running, like golf, is a game for players, not winners. That is why Callaway sells golf clubs and Nike sells running shoes. But running is unique in that the world's best racers are on the same course, at the same time, as amateurs, who have as much chance of winning as your average weekend warrior would scoring a touchdown in the NFL.
There are 30,000 of them now and they all are running for their own reasons. And this is the angle -- this is the story: Why do these buggers run? What kind of sick instinct, stroked by countless hours of brutal training, would cause intelligent people to get up at 4 in the morning and stagger through the streets of Honolulu for 26 ball-busting miles in a race that less than a dozen of them have any chance of winning? This is the question we have come to Hawaii to answer -- again. They do not enter to win. They enter to survive, and go home with a T-shirt. That was the test and the only ones who failed were those who dropped out.
There is no special T-shirt for the winner, but there is a $40,000 check. In the end, the Kenyan men swept the first four spots and it was all East Africans until the Japanese placed eight through 15. Hussein held off Jimmy Muindi to win by four seconds at 2:12:29 -- a pace of 5:03.2 per mile. Muindi ran at a pace of 5:03.4 per mile. To lose a 26-mile race by 4 seconds would be more than most of us could bear, but these men simply pack up and get ready for the next race. On the women's side, the top three places were Russians. The winner was Svetlana Zakharova, who surged past Albina Ivanova, the Russian national record holder, in the 25th mile to win in 2:29:08.0. I do not know the connection between Kenyan men and Russian women.
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It is not really the most logical thing to do -- akin to accepting cocaine in an airport bathroom from a stranger -- but in the scale of things, drinking it seemed like the most normal thing to do.
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's books include "Hell's Angels," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72," "The Proud Highway," Better Than Sex" and "The Rum Diary." His new book, "Fear and Loathing in America," has just been released. A regular contributor to various national and international publications, Thompson now lives in a fortified compound near Aspen, Colo. His column, "Hey, Rube," appears regularly on Page 2.