Seattle's Most Important Marathon, Mythologically Speaking

For the last post I started with the oldest Western Washington running story that I could find, about Eddie Gardner and the Bunion Derby.  (Aside: in a bizarre coincidence, and an illustration of Seattle's ridiculously interesting running culture, the other night at Fleet Feet on Capitol Hill I met John Wallace III, who replicated Gardner's feat by running across the US in 2004 - 05, pushing a baby stroller full of supplies.  I need to find some different friends, because nothing I do will ever be impressive in this crowd.  He wasn't even the best runner there, because it was a group run with Hal Koerner)  For this post, I've decided to write about Seattle's most important running event, in my opinion anyway - the Seattle Marathon.

To start with, I should say that, while I've called this series a 'history', it's actually probably going to shape up into something more akin to a mythology of running in this corner of the PNW.  When I say mythology, I don't mean that it's going to be a bunch of stories that aren't true - rather, I'm intending to record events that are important because they communicate something deep and significant about this community - mythological in a 'Washington crossing the Delaware' kind of way.  That means that I'm going to do my best to make sure they're true, but what I'm trying to draw out is their significance, which will sometimes take precedence over the historical details.  Historical details are usually boring anyway.

I say all of this in part because, as I was trying to scrounge up online information about the history of the Seattle Marathon, I couldn't find much.  In fact, without piecing together newspaper stories from individual years, basically all I could find was this short blurb from their website:

The Seattle Marathon began modestly in 1970 when a group of friends from the University of Washington decided to hold their own running event. 38 runners started the first annual event, with 31 of them completing the full 26.2 miles. From these modest beginnings the Seattle Marathon Family of Events has risen to become one of the largest and most influential mass-participation runs on the West Coast, being ranked by Runners World Magazine as one of the top 20 marathons in the United States. In 1999, a Seattle Kids Marathon was added, which allows children of all ages to run a "full marathon" one mile at a time. 357 children participated the first year, and the event has grown to 2,300 in 2011. Through the years, Seattle Marathon runners have donated their money to the marathon's designated charities.
The only other things that I've pieced together are 1) the current circular course is different from the original, which was an out and back on Lake Washington Blvd that the Ghost of Seattle Marathon roughly replicates (I think this is true!), 2) there is no prize money so non-local elites generally don't run it, and 3) people on 'Let's Run' forums are generally grumpy about it.  I can't even sort out what the all time course record is.  It's confusing.  Even Wikipedia doesn't have much.

And so, you're stuck with my own subjective impressions and amateur myth-making skills. 

I should say that the 2010 Seattle Half was the first event that my wife and I ran that could be called distance running with a straight face, so it has a certain amount of personal significance.   We'd done a couple of 5k's at the end of sprint triathlons, and an 8k in Victoria, but this was the first thing with 'marathon' in the name.  It was training for this event where I really started to enjoy running, and while we were at the expo, we picked up a bunch of fliers on international  events, which after a few drinks and some impulsivity, led to us deciding to go to Rome in 2011 to run our first Marathon. That led to three more and taking up trail running, and now my grades and our financial well-being are being affected by our running habit...

Having said that, I can't say that it was my favorite event.  The actual run was nice enough - I finished well below my goal time and the course was really beautiful - but the event itself was kind of...something.  The finish line was divided into an area for marathoners on the left and half-marathoners on the right, and there was someone literally yelling at runners to go through the correct side.  Usually it was a helpful, directive kind of yell, but at times it seemed like an 'I'm annoyed that you don't know which side to go through' kind of yell.  Weird, and not exactly the way one hopes to be greeted at the end of a major life accomplishment.  The post-race expo had lots of good food, and was inside, which I guess is good for Seattle in November, but it also had an old timey band that seemed really out of place.We couldn't figure out when or where the awards ceremony was supposed to be, so we missed it despite being in the room when it happened.  It was a good party, but there were several more turds in the punchbowl than one would expect at a big event like this.

And yet, still, I say it is the quintessential Seattle running event.  It's Seattle's version of the classic, big-city marathon.  In some cities one could argue that shorter runs are the definitive events - Spokane, for instance, where Bloomsday dominates the landscape by its sheer massiveness.  But in most major metropolitan areas, if you want to talk about running, you have to talk first about the marathon.  In Seattle, there are really only two that are in the running - this one, and the Rock n' Roll.

And there are a host of reasons that the Seattle Marathon is more Seattle-y than the Rock n' Roll:  

1) First off, the Seattle was here way before the Rock n' Roll, so it was first in line.  The Rock n' Roll is the pushy little sibling who is bigger, smarter and better looking.  The Seattle will always remember that when they were little, it tricked the Rock n' Roll into eating dirt. 

2) The Rock n' Roll is bigger and flashier and more corporate.  It's part of a franchise that's come in from the outside, and probably got test-marketed for years before roll out.  For that reason, it's kind of the running equivalent of the Californians who move to the Eastside with a bunch of money and drive around Maserati's and complain about traffic and weather.  They're prettier and ultimately more fun, but they're not really Seattle.  Real Seattle wants to be rich, but doesn't want anyone to think that they are.  They want to wear Keens and live in modest-looking but super expensive green buildings and listen to NPR, not party in mansions on the lake.  The Seattle Marathon has corporate sponsors, but it is much more likely that the Rock n' Roll to wear Keens.  I know, I made this up, and it doesn't make sense, but if you think about it, I expect that you can feel the truth of what I'm suggesting.

3) The weather.  The reality is that Seattle in Summer is the perfect place to run - 70 degrees, sunny, some of the most beautiful scenery of any city in the world.  If you're going to organize a running event in Seattle that you want a bunch of people to attend, you should do it in the Summer.  The Rock n' Roll is scheduled for June 23rd this year.  It's not post-Independence Day, but in all likelihood it's going to be sunny and gorgeous.  The Seattle, on the other hand, is scheduled for November 25th.  There was a time when I found this inexplicable, but now I get it.  Seattle in November is in fact the real Seattle.  It's probably going to be cold and rainy and miserable.  If you're from Seattle, you don't like that kind of weather, but you pretend that it's fine.  After all, Summer is but a passing 3 - 4 month oasis from the real Seattle, which is grey and rainy and 45 degrees.  Real Seattle-ites embrace this, and pretend that this is in fact the ideal running weather.  If you don't like the weather in November, you're not going to like it in December or January or February or March or April or May or (probably) June or October either, which means that you don't like Seattle - you don't like us.  So stop complaining and embrace it.  Embrace the rain like Cuba Gooding Jr. at the end of Instinct.

4) The hills.  Similarly, real Seattle-ites don't just run along Lake Washington.  They run freaking hills, and they like it.  They don't mind that they lose a few seconds of time when there are a couple hundred feet of elevation change 20 miles in.  They embrace it.  Hills make you stronger and give you better views of our many majestic mountains and lakes. They are a key part of Seattle's essence.  The Rock n' Roll doesn't have hills.  The Seattle Marathon has hills.

5) More on this in a later post, but in my opinion, you can't be an important Washington running event until you've been destroyed by a Steidl.

6) And finally, the yelling lady.  So, while irked screaming isn't necessarily the ideal greeting at the end of a marathon, it is appropriately Seattle.  After all, PEOPLE WERE GOING THROUGH THE WRONG SIDE OF THE FINISH.  Seattle is polite, but above all Seattle is orderly.  Nothing is worse for a real Seattle-ite than breaking the social order - cutting in line, failing to stop for a pedestrian, littering.  If you're breaking the social order in a real Seattle marathon, even inadvertently, you should be prepared for people to be angry.  It's my understanding that they're working on ways to engrave passive-aggressive notes on the back of finisher's medals, which will complete the experience.

(I'll leave off this list the fact that the Portland Marathon is reputably better.  As all Seattle-ites know, that's a bunch of crap.  Portland is great, but it's no Seattle.)

And so, while the Seattle Marathon wasn't the most fun event I've ever run personally, it is quintessentially Seattle, and it is ultimately the most clear iconic representation of the Seattle running scene as a whole.  If you're a Washington runner, at some point you have to run the Seattle Marathon, and when you do, like the rest of us you'll pretend that you don't mind trudging up hills in the rain.  


Anonymous said…
Bloomsday in Spokane is probably the most important running event in Washington, and it will NEVER be destroyed by a Steidl.
Unknown said…
It all depends on your standards Uli - 5 minute miles, 1st in your age group, and 3rd among WA runners last year counts as destruction in my book :).