I ran a marathon in Joplin last weekend – the second annual “Mother Road Marathon,” along Route 66. It was hot, there was a head wind, and it was a long slow day. My time was exactly one hour longer than my first marathon six months ago. I didn’t have a good excuse for my slowness – I’ve just been lazy about training. But for locals in Joplin, training for this race was truly challenging.
Most folks train on an 18 week schedule, so to be ready for the October 9th Joplin marathon, runners needed to start a regular regimen in the first weeks of June – in other words, just weeks after an EF5 tornado plowed through the center of town, displacing one in five Joplin residents.
In the weeks and months after the storm, there was nothing normal about everyday life. And for many runners, the routine of running was one of the things they missed the most. Hitting the trail after work, pounding out stress on the pavement. But nobody went running at first. It felt wrong and selfish to be spending that time on recreation. Many runners didn’t even have shoes. Old running routes no longer existed. One runner, who lost his home and his workplace and was badly injured, told me, “It’s a part of you, and when you can’t do it anymore, it’s like a part of you is gone.” For runners, getting back into that routine was an essential part of getting back to normal. For many this race was an opportunity to do that.
Marathoners are an interesting crowd – living in the modern world, where most of us don’t have to spend our days running from hungry predators, we seek out and self-inflict physical hardship. I saw people finishing who looked like they were about to pull a Phidippides and expire at the finish line. And people do die running marathons every year. (Although, interestingly, marathons actually save lives, according to one study, which found that roads closed for the events prevent more deaths from car accidents than the races themselves cause from heart attacks.)
Every year more and more of us sign up for this torture. Last year, over half a million people ran marathons in the U.S., a number that’s more than doubled since 1990.
During the race, I carried a little hand-held audio recorder, and interviewed runners as we ticked off the miles. There were people from 25 states and 6 countries. Thomas Brand, from New Jersey, was finishing his 100th marathon. Bryndis Svavarsdottir came all the way from Iceland, where, she says, she is the record-holder for number of marathons run (134). “I am addicted,” she told me.
Race organizers say holding the event was a way of saying to the world, “We’re open for business.” Since the tornado, hotels have been busy. While I was there, hotel parking lots were filled with missionaries’ vans and construction workers’ trucks. At first volunteers and workers were busy demolishing. Now they’re busy building.
Runners too said they were there to support Joplin. Pamela Crim, from El Paso, Texas, was in town to run the race for the second year in a row. She said Joplin was the most supportive town she’d run in. “Last year Joplin supported us, and we came to support them. I just think they’re incredible.”
Stay tuned for a radio feature story on runners in Joplin, to air on KBIA. A shorter version aired on NPR’s Weekend Edition.