The news that a new world record had been set for fattest man ever to finish a marathon was overshadowed last week, which is a shame because this story deserves more examination than the NCAA Final Four.
The Final Four, after all, simply demonstrates that the NCAA Final Four has somehow overlapped in space and time with the NIT's opening round as a celebration of mediocrity in basketball. A Final Four without any number ones simply means that the teams everyone (including the NCAA selection committee) thought were the best won't be playing in the biggest game of the year.
The Fattest Marathoner -- probably soon to be a Lifetime movie -- however, raised the important question of "What really constitutes finishing a marathon?"
As you may already know, and certainly would already know if not for the NCAA Tournament and/or Liz Taylor's death, Kelly Gneiting became, at 6' tall and 400 pounds, the "heaviest man to finish a marathon, ever," completing a marathon in just under 10 hours.
I say "a" marathon because I read this story, and it never mentioned which marathon Gneiting ran, which maybe isn't the most important detail, but it's certainly something that should be in a story about a marathon, right? (That detail isn't in the LA Times' story, either, other than the headline, which I didn't read at first.)
At 9 hours, 48 minutes and 52 seconds -- the official time for Gneiting, and now the record to beat, those of you who model your life after Homer Simpson's quest to get on disability --
....Gneiting averaged just over 22 minutes per mile. That's less than three miles an hour; it's 2.7 miles per hour to be exact.
Compare that to the average walking speed for pedestrians. According to one study, most pedestrians walk at an average of 3.3 miles per hour; older pedestrians still stride along at a brisk (compared to Gneitling) 2.8 miles per hour.
So what Gneitling did was walk for about 10 hours. That's not an inconsiderable achievement, in and of itself*
*I know that reports say Gneitling jogged the first 8 miles, but I haven't seen that confirmed and if he jogged them his pace couldn't have been very much higher. Simple math says that if Gneitling had jogged the first 8 miles at, say, 5 miles per hour -- or just under 2x his average pace -- he'd have finished them in 96 minutes, but he would then have walked the final 18 miles or so at an average pace of 24 minutes, which makes his "achievement" even more debatable. So really, I'm doing him a favor by assuming that he kept a continuous 22-minute-per-mile pace.But is it "finishing a marathon" and is it worth celebrating? Doesn't the phrase "finish a marathon" denote doing something more than just staggering along for 10 hours?
When I first read this story, I instantly thought of the many articles I've read over the years that talk about how many calories one can burn doing laundry, or the dishes. "Get Fit Doing Housework" a headline will say, and then Good Morning America will do a story on how the latest "exercise" trend is people mopping their floors and burning 30 calories a minute doing that...
... or worse:
...and each time I read something like that, I thought:
"That's not exercise. You're fooling yourself."
And I know what I'm talking about -- because I once read an article that said fidgeting can burn 800 calories a day, so I taught myself to fidget. That didn't work; I still had to go on a diet and actually exercise, jogging and swimming and biking to lose weight.
So now, with Kelly Gneitling, we're confronted with this: everytime you walk 26 miles, you've completed a marathon. I walk two blocks from my parking garage to my office every day, then do it again when I leave work. Let's say that's 200 yards, one way. I walk 400 yards per day, which means that I "finish a marathon" every 4.4 days. Since I returned to work a week after I had a heart attack last year, I finished a marathon a week after I had heart surgery. So shouldn't Guiness be calling me?
I've never run a marathon -- the farthest I ever went was 17.5 miles, in a continuous run with no breaks and no walking -- so I can't say what it's like to finish one, or even if I could. (In fact, given that I got exhausted and confused and lost just watching someone else run one, I doubt I could finish one.) But I don't see that Gneitling's feat is really a feat at all.
Then, too, there's the idea that Gneitling considers himself an "athlete," a word that used to mean something before Hobo-Crotch-Kicking-MMA and sumo wrestling and ballroom dancing became considered "sports." There was a time when athletes, or at least athletes tho weren't baseball players, were finely-tuned machines who could perform at a higher level than the rest of us could, running sprints as if they were Gods of Wind, throwing footballs 90 yards in the air on a dime to a receiver, pitching perfect games, pole-vaulting.
Now, athletes look like Ben Roethlisberger and the Williams' Twins -- but not the hot ones,
but the ones who play for the Vikings
-- and we get headline stories about 400-pounders who walked a long ways and got into the Guiness Book of World Records for it, and if I had finished a marathon, I'd be a little PO'd that my accomplishment was lumped in with Gneitling's. Train for a year or more, run until your lungs hurt and your blisters have blisters on their blisters, and then some guy who looks as though he carried an emergency ration of Twinkies with him gets the same credit you do?
Isn't that like comparing Aron Ralston to Warren C. Breidenbach?**
Celebrating athletic achievements has to have a cutoff, somewhere. Not everyone can be a winner, and not everything is a record, even if it seems to be. I once had a discussion with Some Guy At Work about whether everything could be The Best if you defined the categories carefully enough, and whether that was a valid exercise. Is it really the best, or a record, or a victory, if it's so carefully parsed that it's the only thing in its category?
***Aron Ralston, of course, was the hiker whose sawing off his own arm led to fame and the movie 127 Hours. Warren C. Breidenbach was part of the team of surgeons who performed the first hand transplants.
(I think the same thing when I see announcers say "Number one Tampa Bay goes up against the first-ranked Detroit Lions this weekend" and then find out that what Detroit is "first-ranked" in is "Special teams kickoff touchbacks in the second half.")
What does it mean to have the best-selling novel aimed at 13-14 year olds featuring an agnostic protagonist written by an unpublished writer in under 6 months that's not a sequel or available online but does feature a reference to the Constitutional Convention? Is that worth celebrating?
So it goes with the fattest man to finish a marathon; if there's no upper time limit on finishing -- if we don't insist that "finishing a marathon" be done in at least as fast a time as could be achieved by an elderly pedestrian -- then everyone finished marathons all the time. We're not even celebrating mediocrity at that point; we're celebrating merely existing. Which means that Syndrome will have finally won -- when everyone is super, nobody will be.
Kelly Gneitling walked a long way. That's it. It's not a record. It's not an athletic achievement, even. He just went about his day, and his day happened to include the course of the LA Marathon. From here on out, let's reserve "athletic achievement" commendations for things that are truly athletic, and truly achievements.