WASHINGTON -- If misery could be measured in meters, surely the place to do it, with agonizing precision, was the outdoor track at Falls Church High School on a Saturday afternoon. That's where 10 hardy masochists decided to run a marathon, covering 26.2 miles 400 meters at a time, 105½ laps in all, around and around like human stock cars at Daytona.
What drew me to the inaugural "Last Track to Boston" event was the idea that anyone would choose to do this when he or she could sign up for one of the hundreds of marathons held throughout the United States and the rest of the world. Those runs would take you up mountains and down river valleys, past famous monuments, through urban neighborhoods, along trails in the woods -- pretty much anywhere except the baked black rubber surface of a high school track.
It is 89 degrees when I arrive shortly before 4:30 p.m., less than an hour into the race, with 54 percent humidity that makes it feel like 95 degrees. Ideally, marathons should start near dawn and be run in 40- or 50-degree weather. The runners already are drenched in their own sweat, which drips from their hats and runs down their legs into their squishy shoes. A couple of older guys are already plodding. If there is a circle in hell for marathoners, it undoubtedly resembles this oval.
At least, that's how I feel about it. The runners mostly disagree. In July, several of them ran an indoor marathon, which is held on a 200-meter track and takes 211 laps to complete.
"It's to do something different and see how your body responds to this," says Tammy Bagdasarian, 44, of Herndon, Va., one of two women to finish the race (Bagdasarian was second in 5:25:43). The course doesn't bother Bagdasarian much, though she prefers ultramarathons, which tax a variety of muscles because the terrain varies. "It's not bad, except the heat," she says.
Eugene Fritzel, 62, of Lutherville, Md., is running his 203rd marathon over the past 23 years, a race history that includes at least one run in each of the 50 states and the indoor marathon in Arlington, Va., in July that attracted 37 runners.
"It's hot. It's miserable. It's just not as easy as a regular marathon," he tells me as we walk a few laps together. Fritzel would finish in 5:47:38, long after the sun set, yet he is having a good time. "It's a small bunch of people. You see the same people. It's different," he says. "It's actually kind of great."
The event was set up by Jay Jacob Wind, of Arlington, who told me he has been staging races in the Washington area since 1981. With the qualifying period for the 2013 Boston Marathon nearly over, he wanted to give runners one last chance to gain entry to the historic race. He figured a flat course with easy access to water, food and bathrooms would give them their best shot. He set up two water stops 200 meters apart on the track, engaged volunteer counters to track each runner's every lap and advertised the race, which he plans to hold again next year.
Wind, a scrawny 62-year-old who has been running most of his life, finished third in 3:56:35.
I've been to distance events crammed into tiny spaces, notably a triple Ironman triathlon in Virginia's Lake Anna State Park whose bike leg was 67 laps of the same five-mile stretch of blacktop and whose run leg covered just a two-mile stretch 39 times. The Savage Seven in Ocala, Fla. -- whose participants try to complete seven marathons in seven days -- was held on a track its first two years.
Saturday's run wasn't quite that crazy, though the heat and humidity all but precluded a Boston qualifying time or personal best before the race even began. Yet onward they forged, with only a few starters dropping out. In fact, the winner, Miguel Angel Sanchez-Ruano, 45, of Woodbridge, Va. (3:50:11), and second-place finisher, Nicklaus Randall Combs, 29, of Fairfax, Va. (3:55:20), were running their first organized marathons.
Perhaps my favorite runner was Edward Keller, a lieutenant colonel in the Kansas National Guard stationed in Washington, who ultimately finished last in 6:14:26. Keller, 50, doesn't look like a marathoner and he was already suffering when I arrived. But there was no chance he would quit. I mean, no chance. He was running his 16th marathon since January, including the brutal Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado in August, and plans to do more, including the JFK 50 Mile race in Boonsboro, Md., in November.
"Runners, we don't like to rest on our laurels," he said. "We like to compete and challenge our bodies." He also likened the race to his deployments to Iraq, where he was in charge of defending a U.S. base.
No matter what happens, he said, "you've got to put your boots on and get to your job. People are counting on you to do your job."