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Are New York Marathoners Athletes?

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Allow me to share an exchange I had with my good friend, the writer C.J. Sullivan, as we discussed the following question:

Are New York Marathoners Athletes?

Sullivan: I would answer that with a loud, "Hell No!"

Well let me qualify that. Out of the 37,000 duffers that will pollute the streets of our fair city this Sunday - November 7th - maybe 500 are athletes. The elite runners are something to watch. They are so lean they look almost alien. Them I admire. They are in an actual race. It is the 36,500 other fools that annoy me every year.

Running is a great way to stay in shape. And running 26 miles is some kind of torturous accomplishment - but they are not athletes. They endure and then squawk about it endlessly as some kind of heroic feat. It smacks of narcissism not sport. Marathons are the last refuge for those that couldn't cut it in other sports. Any knucklehead in decent shape can train and then run 26 miles in under 4 or 5 hours. It means you are in shape. It does not make you an athlete.

When people work out at Gold's Gym doing cardio and lifting weights, they do not think they are engaging in athletics. They do it to stay in shape. My gym workout does not qualify me as an athlete. Same with running. It is exercise. When you get down in a basketball game then we are talking sport.

The NYC Marathon, after the first 500 runners, is no longer a race. It is like a parade of badly clad folks sucking wind and struggling up First Avenue. They shut the city down for the whole damn day just so the stragglers can say they "finished."

Now if the city did not police the Marathon and the runners had to deal with traffic and muggers maybe we could qualify it as some kind of Extreme Urban Sport. But to shut down New York on a Sunday so a Merrill Lynch broker can fulfill some personal obsession just isn't right. I say run through a Brooklyn ghetto at night and see how you make out. Then I might consider you daring or heroic.

Hollander: The whole thing is insufferable. We all know someone who, a year in advance, decides they're going to run the marathon. And that's all they talk about for the entire bloody year. "Yeah, I'm going to the movies this weekend, gotta hit Ikea and of course I'm running in that 10K out in Manasquan, New Jersey ... You know, I'm running the marathon this year." It becomes their identity. Soon you're hit with the onslaught of communal "look at me" activities. "Come support me. Come to my pre-marathon pasta breakfast. Come to my post-marathon party."

Then I feel guilty if I don't come out to support them. Sure, let's all race from subway stop to subway stop across the five boroughs to cheer you on as you run past us looking pained, withered and about the heave all over the P.O.W. look-a-like running next to you. If I really loved you I would pull you out of there!

Beneath the narcissism I detect deep-seated masochism. Kenyans run marathons because they have to. Back home there were no cars, no roads and the nearest school bus or fresh water source was 40 miles away. Their "training" is borne from the necessity to survive. That 36,500 you mentioned, they run to kill personal demons. They beat their bodies swollen and sore to fill an emptiness or quiet a cry.

Sport, no. Self-flagellation, penitence, lunacy -- yes.

Admit it. How many times have you met someone who seemed perfectly normal. You say to your friend, "Hey, I just talked to Jim over there. Great guy!" And your friend says, "Yeah he's a really great guy. Great wife, two kids, a beach house and did you know he runs marathons?" Then mentally you take a step back. You see the touch of madness in Jim's eyes. You recognize the inner-psycho working just beneath his manicured self-presentation. "Oh really," you say "That's (pause) impressive."

Sullivan: Amazingly, for once we are in agreement. With the Mets not in the World Series I needed the diversion of mocking marathoners to get me through this cold fall.

The leaders are running 26 miles with each mile under 5 minutes. That kind of long distance running is damn impressive. But that is were the race ends for me. The rest is just a parade. And an annoying one at that.

But the NYC Marathon is not about who wins and that makes it a non-sporting event to me. It is all about the losers of the race. And then you hear that if you finish - no matter what - you are a winner. Well that is just plain wrong. You lost by hours, sluggard. No one cares that you finished two hours behind the lead pack. You are not a winner. Just a real slow runner.

How about that ING ad about the Marathon being one race with 37,000 stories? Besides who won you can keep all their stories about blisters and pain and self involved obstacles to their glory of finishing. Marathon runners need to tell their stories walking - preferably away from me.

Hollander: To be clear, professional marathon runners are phenomenal athletic specimens. They strive to break through the human limits of speed, strength and endurance while trying to finish ahead of others engaged in the same physical test. Competitive marathoners possess a mental toughness - the acid test which separates the good athletes from the great athletes - second to none and well beyond most. I stand in awe of them.

But the rest of these people who come from all over with this pilgrimage to Mecca mentality, they've got to go. Look, I am all for each of us pushing ourselves. I think everyone has a challenge to meet in life that is theirs and theirs alone. I applaud everyone who has the courage to take that challenge. It's a free country. But someone exercising their inalienable right to see what they can handle physically is not something I need or want to see.

If you narrow the field to only those runners who have demonstrated the ability to win place or show, I think you'd have a much more compelling event for spectators and runners alike. Instead, what we have now is some kind of faux local holiday meets national freak convention.

This year, when I see one of those runners who flew in from Godknowswhere, USA walking around Manhattan, dazed and alone, wrapped in that stupid tin foil, hours after she's finished, I won't give her hug or a bottle of Evian. I'll give her the name of good therapist.