Monday, April 20, 2009

The Overcrowding of the Long-Distance Runners

There are days and events when I miss sportswriting more than others. The NCAA Tournament, for example. During March, I grieved for my former life , an emotion I seldom feel anymore.

Then there are days like today. Patriots Day. Marathon Day. Whatever else happens to me during the next 14 hours or so, I will not have to think of anything to say about the 113th Boston Marathon, guaranteeing I go to bed with a positive life score.

Don't misunderstand. I LIKED covering the Marathon, up to a point. Indeed, it was one of my specialities as a columnist. The men and women who compete in that event deserve nothing but the utmost respect and admiration from anyone who has the slightest interest in sports. I was privileged to cover some great races and great athletes. Boston would be a far, far poorer city in spirit without the Marathon.

However, as a sportswriting experience, the Marathon suffers from the same problem as another beloved sports tradition I got sick of-spring training. Repetition. The root word of "news" is, after all, "new." Unless one is a total hack, the belief that one has nothing fresh to contribute to a reader's understand or enjoyment of an event is the most helpless, sickening sensation in sportswriting. Yet both the Marathon and spring training are popular in large part precisely because they ARE pretty much the same every year. That's why folks call them "rites."

Spring training in 2009 was the same as in 1909. Go to the BPL and look up the stories, and only the names changed over a century. So it is with the Marathon. A wise old writer once told me, way back before I hit the creative wall at the event, that "there are basically seven stories at the Marathon, and they don't change from year to year. Once you've written all seven, it's time to cover something else."

He's right. Men's winner. Women's winner. Wheelchairs. People running for charity. Runners who used to be addicts/smokers/really fat. Runners who are celebrities or celebrity spouses. The Hoyts. There's seven. Write in if you can think of any others.

I covered my first Marathon in 1978, and my last in 2004, missing no more than three or four in that time. Using my old guide's rule of thumb, I pretty much wrote every story the Marathon has to offer three times each. I don't make it a habit of going back and reading my old stuff, but I'd be willing to bet a certain freshness was lacking in the 21st century pieces. Let's just say I didn't wake up on Patriot's Day thinking they'd be pulling the Pulitzer Committee out of bed when my story was posted on the Herald Web site.

It's not the Marathon's fault I got tired of writing about it. This is a problem endemic to all sportswriting, to all journalism, really. At some point, expertise on a topic is undercut by one's weariness with said topic. You know more, but the ability to make that knowledge engrossing to others fades because you're less interested than you were when engaged in your own learning curve. It takes the attitude of a true scholar to thrive as a beat writer. Thank God I got paid to be a generalist.

Every journalist should wake up each morning and assess his or her reaction to the following ancient baseball cliche. You see something new every day in this game.

If the reporter's gut instinct is "the hell you do," it's time to find another game to cover.


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