My jaw drops every time Roger Federer returns a crushing serve at 130-140 mph to his opponent. For some, matching Bobby Jones’s classic elegant swing is equivalent to reaching the epitome of sporting success. But calling tennis or golf or any other the hardest sport is debatable. I personally believe that running a marathon is the toughest sport out there.
Agreed, all other sports like baseball, rugby or golf require finely-tuned mental and physical co-ordination and each tests you at different levels of strength, stamina and psychological prowess. But none of them push the limit like running 26.2 miles under 3 hours, in a climate that may or may not be conducive to comfort and without a single pit stop. Nor is there any technology to lean on. It’s just you and your body against the elements-from the start to the finish line.
“The Mile Has All The Elements Of A Drama!” said Sir Roger Gilbert Bannister, a former athlete who couldn’t have put it better. Dedication, determination, exhilaration, pain, action and emotion, you name it.
Unlike baseball or golf where the main focus is to match hand-eye movement and complement it with a stroke that is pure brute power, or adapt and change your strategy tactically in tennis and NASCAR racing, a marathon I believe is the hardest sport on the body. There are several reasons why.
First, most runners train on hard, concrete ground. The pounding legs and joints feel every time feet touch the pavement and leap back up is at least four times a runner’s body weight. And this continues for the entire distance!
Secondly, there are no 10-minute rest room breaks, fuel recharge pit stops or injury time outs or replacements. Yes, one might engage in a slower pace or walk while entering the midpoint of a race. But pull to a complete stop and recovering lost time is out of the question.
Next comes the long, winding road. A 26-mile run is a daunting task, even for a seasoned marathoner. Putting the body through a test like this for a stretch of three hours entails physical and mental exhaustion to the brink of pain and numbness.
Many tend to simply switch off their brains, distancing themselves from the pain. This may work for some, but most of the best athletes refrain from doing so. Yes, they feel the pain too. But they choose to accept the aches, tune their bodies to adapt to each situation and reach the finish line. This is what makes for an elite runner.
Where’s the strategy involved? In a tennis match, strategy is critical to break the opponent’s game. That strategy needs to be modified every time rivals decide to spring a surprise. So, if Andre Agassi capitalized on his serve and volley tactics, Pete Sampras had to rely on more than his super-smooth aces to stay put in the game.
Similarly, during a marathon it is crucial to strategize the entire route to protect the body from burnout. Some runners make the mistake of going too fast in the beginning to take the lead, they run the risk of losing fuel mid way and lagging off at the finish line.
What makes running the best sport of all is that everyone is a winner. Oh yes, there are the proverbial 1st, 2nd and runner up spots, but the ephemeral experience of a race well run is unexplainable. And for anyone still unconvinced, put on your tennis shoes and hit the streets!