Reporter's Notebook

Breakfast of Champions

I’ve learned to vanquish the nagging demons of inferiority — or at least lull them into complacency with liberal doses of endorphins

By Tristan Scott

Squeezing into a restaurant booth crowded with champions last Saturday, an earlier version of myself might have felt like an impostor. But through the years I’ve learned to vanquish the nagging demons of inferiority — or at least lull them into complacency with liberal doses of endorphins — and in my post-race afterglow I accepted that each of us had just returned from our own individual quests for enlightenment. 

Some quests were faster than others, to be sure, but here at the end of our journeys each of us merely wanted our eggs cooked to order.

I was seated beside the men’s winners of the Whitefish Marathon and Half-Marathon and, as steaming plates heaped high with greasy food arrived at our table, we discussed the merits of a running event that had, for the second year in a row, drawn 1,000 participants to the start line in downtown Whitefish’s Depot Park. That’s a graduate-level roster of runners in a distance event whose pedigree has grown like a beanstalk from the humble seeds planted 15 years ago, an acceleration ascribed in part to a course overhaul, including the race’s certification as a qualifying event for the Boston Marathon.

There are other rational explanations for the event’s growth spurt, including behind-the-scenes organizational and marketing mechanics, but in my calorie-deprived state I affected the air of a woozy philosopher king, grasping for the intangibles that define a sport like running.

How can a footrace entice so many hundreds of human bodies into motion on a brisk spring Saturday morning in Montana? Is pain really the purest physical expression of consciousness, as each participant finds meaning and comfort in the act of enduring the struggle of exertion?

Perhaps that intangible quality, “the spirit of the marathon,” was best personified by the men’s half-marathon winners, Drew Coco and Micah Drew, friends and local training partners who crossed the finish line hand-in-hand in course-record time, having struck a gentlemen’s agreement after sharing pacing duties for 13.1 miles. 

Spectators might have preferred a photo finish, but distance running has always been more about the internal dialog than spectacle. 

The men’s marathon winner, Paden Alexander, had driven up from his home in Ronan earlier that morning to run the 26.2-mile distance for his first time, registering the night before and handily winning in a time of 2:45. My Flathead Beacon colleague, Elizabeth Wasserman, who in 2020 qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials, secured her first-place prize in the half-marathon with a smart pacing strategy and a laidback confidence developed through years of disciplined training.

Having now shared miles and meals with all four of these podium-grade athletes, my theorizing about the mass allure of running perhaps hasn’t brought me any closer to casting its phantasmic qualities in material form. Indeed, the opposite has become true as I’ve accepted the personal value of running one’s own race and finding deep meaning in my dogged pursuit of the absurd.

Bill Bowerman, the University of Oregon’s iconic head track and field coach from 1949-72 and a co-founder of Nike, said it best when he told his athletes: “Running, one might say, is basically an absurd past-time upon which to be exhausting ourselves. But if you can find meaning in the kind of running you have to do to stay on this team, chances are you will be able to find meaning in another absurd past-time: Life.”

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