“There is no better stage for heroism than a marathon,” remarked George Sheehan, a widely read philosopher of distance running. Indeed, heroism requires a certain counterintuitive impulse and, true to form, marathoners defy common sense. Think about it: they come to the starting line voluntarily, prepared to enter a realm of profound exhaustion produced by 26.2 miles of pavement pounding. Why? Well, I suppose they want to say, "I finished." Crazy, isn't it?
Nuttiness notwithstanding, for those who follow the sport, great marathoners are heroes, majestic figures who transcend the boundaries of human possibility. Marathon fans will no doubt watch this year’s Olympic Games hoping to see heroic accomplishments. Of America's three male qualifiers, the final runner to have made the team arguably has the largest cult following. In November, Brian Sell finished third at the Olympic trails. Lining the course, family, friends, and fans cheered his astonishing come-from-behind finish. In the months that followed, Sell's legend unfolded. Put simply, he is the little guy who made it big. He ran at a small Division I college, then joined a group of post-collegiate runners in Detroit, and now works part-time at Home Depot. Oh yea, he also runs 160 miles per week. Many of his fellow competitors neither run this much, nor hold such ordinary jobs. So Sell prevailed despite his circumstances, and did so through grit and determination.
Now brace yourself for some name-dropping… I was fortunate enough to have been a teammate of Brian’s in college, so I’ve witnessed his transition from a relative nobody to a national (and international) star. Personality traits of his that I have always admired are now endearing qualities for a larger audience. Running magazines and websites laud his work ethic, humility, and—of all things—his ever-changing facial hair. For many runners, these attributes speak to a memory of the “Running Boom," when in the 1970s a cast of shaggy pluggers such as Frank Shorter, Bill Rogers, and Steve Prefontaine (pictured to the right) racked up the miles, set world records, and won Olympic medals. In the decades that followed, Americans rarely repeated such accomplishments. At the 2004 Olympics, however, Americans won medals in both the men’s and women’s marathons. Some expect a repeat in Beijing.
Very few people predict Sell to win a medal. But it's hard to say. Marathons are notoriously unpredictable. Nevertheless, I'm eager to watch my friend compete and am confident that he will do well. Moreover, I suspect his legend will continue growing after the games. From the heroic stage of the marathon, he speaks to a cherished American myth of the unknown person who works hard and achieves great things.