Why long-distance running offers spectators a rare chance to experience what it's like to be an Olympian.
The best place to watch an Olympic marathon is on a treadmill. You don't have to stay on it for the duration of the event, but running along with the contestants for a little while can provide unique insight into the truly remarkable nature of Olympic competition.
There's a problem with watching most professional and Olympic sports: The average human being cannot meaningfully relate to what transpires on the fields of play. While many sports fans have played or continue to play the sports they watch, the disparity in skill level between even the best amateur athletes and the worst professionals destroys all possibility of understanding context. Try as we may, we cannot replicate the conditions of top-notch competition.
Maybe you played basketball in high school, and maybe you can still go to a hoop at a local park and hit 10 jump shots in a row. That doesn't mean you understand how difficult it is for Kevin Durant to hit a three-pointer with an NBA defender draped all over him. Maybe you were a tennis prodigy as a child and can still consistently hit the ball deep into the corners of the court with significant speed and topspin. That doesn't mean you understand what it takes for Rafael Nadal to hit a winner off Roger Federer's first serve. And maybe you play flag football on the weekends and happen to lead your team in receptions. Keep in mind that running a fly pattern in a recreational league is not comparable to doing so on an NFL field where defensive back are trying to hit, and in some cases hurt, downfield receivers.
MORE ON THE OLYMPICS
This may seem like a somewhat obvious idea—Usain Bolt is more athletic than you!—but it's worth considering. The difference in athletic abilities between sports fans and the athletes they watch is so great that, even if given the chance, the average person could not meaningfully exist on a playing field with elite competitors. If you inserted the average Joe or Jane onto a basketball court or football field with a group of professionals, that person's presence would not even register. If you put an average person in an Olympic speed race like the 100-meter dash—an event where the top performers run at speeds that exceed 26 miles per hour—that person would appear to be running through quicksand. The level of play in professional and Olympic sports is so high that it practically constitutes an entirely different reality from the amateur level, and that has repercussions for our understanding of sports and our feelings towards athletes.
To quote author David Shields, "the body-in-motion is, for me, the site of the most meaning." I agree with that sentiment and have spent a disproportionate amount of my life trying to glean meaning from watching professional athletes practice their craft. But how much meaning can I get just by watching? If I can't imitate the conditions of play, can I really understand all the things professional sports have to teach?