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Fresh air, exercise, earnestness, overt displays of camaraderie and support, extreme patriotism, and missing football games that I want to watch. These all make me uncomfortable.
Which made Sunday’s chain of events personally illuminating. I followed the local NFL team’s London-based draw with the Bengals via Twitter, from atop a hill not far from the Marine Corps War Memorial, where I was watching the finish of the 41st annual Marine Corps Marathon.
It should have amounted to my worst nightmare. Of course, with neither the stamina for the run nor the commitment and self-discipline to train, I didn’t actually run the marathon. I was just waiting for my wife to cross the finish line.
In the absolute loosest possible sense, I had “run” the Marine Corps 10K. While I jogged (and alternately walked and kinda limped), I listened to the football game, streamed from London through my phone to my ears.
Then I took the Metro back to the hotel where we had stayed the night before, still streaming the game. That took me to about halftime. At the hotel, I flipped the game on TV, cleaned up, finished packing, and drove my car closer to the race finish, listening to the broadcast via radio now, instead of phone.
I parked just under a mile from the race finish, and started walking (or, more accurately, stiffly hobbling) while trying to follow the game via Twitter, under the probably misguided assumption that avoiding streaming would conserve battery and limit data consumption.
Which is how I got back to the top of that hill, watching one event live and the other in 140-character fragments.
The hill accounts for the marathon’s last two-tenths of a mile, the bit that everyone forgets about when they round down in conversations about the “26-mile” race. It is very deliberately there to provide, as the race website says, “a final uphill challenge” and to force runners to finish strong (among other platitudes).
It is brutal on the best of days, but the heat this year made it especially so. It was so unseasonably warm that it set a daily record at Dulles airport just 25 miles away. The runners had been repeatedly advised to curb their pace, to drink more water, to take care of themselves, but 26 miles in heat is 26 miles in heat, and most of the non-military runners looked gassed as they hit the final point-two.
The NFL game’s overtime was a lively one. Washington failed to score first, but its defense stiffened to keep the team in it. After missing a near-certain, potentially game-winning field goal, the team somehow regained possession with a minute left.
I was learning these developments in bursts, sometimes out of sequence, my phone doing its best to maintain a steady signal in an area choked with invisible texts from reuniting families and race-tracker apps updating and, presumably, plenty of other football “watchers.”
A bad penalty cost Washington the chance to win, and the game ended in a tie, which cued the usual outbursts of frustration and disgust. Based on what people were tweeting, the sense was that somehow this failure to deliver a clear winner was unjust—never mind that the two teams had seemed (based on my disjointed viewing of the game) pretty evenly matched.
Ordinarily, maybe I would’ve joined in, suggested ways to improve NFL overtime, criticized the officiating, or second-guessed some of coach Jay Gruden’s decisions.
But I was simultaneously watching people who were determined simply to finish a grueling test of physical stamina, one that allows for no substitutes or time in between plays, and whose rewards include only personal fulfillment, a medal, and hugs from friendly Marines. One man collapsed halfway up the hill. Two Marines slung his arms around their shoulders and helped him to the finish. Somewhere out of sight past the bottom of the hill, something presumably unfortunate had happened to a runner, which I discovered when four medics wheeled a gurney up the hill to make sure the person was able to cross the finish line.
Another disquieting trigger for me are sports columns declaiming the inherent virtues of amateurism over sports-for-pay, the importance of wanting-to-win-for-winning’s-sake over wanting to get paid. It’s a stupid, reductive argument, and not the one I’m making here.
But watching these runners—and others who were determined to make it across the finish line, even in less dramatic ways—had a diminishing effect on what I was sure were absolute sentiments. It was difficult to put quite so much emphasis on the football game’s outcome, or even how it came to end as it did.
The players did their jobs to the best of their abilities, and they didn’t win. Sometimes, you don’t get to cross the finish line the way you want. It doesn’t nullify what you did to get there.