Running a Requiem, Singing a Marathon

  Jerome Shea       April 7, 2007      Weekend Wonk

I am runner and a singer. More specifically, I run marathons and I sing (bass) with the University of New Mexico Chorus. I ran my first marathon—the Duke City, here in Albuquerque—in 1986, I joined the chorus a couple of years later, and here I am in 2007 still running and still singing. Early on I began to note similarities between the two avocations.

But first, some background. A marathon is a footrace over a 26.2 mile course. My best time, back when I was a stripling of fifty, was about three hours and thirty-five minutes. At 65, I will never break four hours again, though not for lack of trying. Nowadays I do one marathon a year, the San Diego Rock ‘n Roll, on the first Sunday in June. Should you be in San Diego on the 3rd of June this year, look for a stubby old guy with a white beard, a goofy hat, and a yellow New Mexico singlet, stomping along as gamely as he can manage. Polite cheering will be appreciated.

The UNM Chorus is a non-auditioned group, running (pun?) to about a hundred and fifty members in any given semester. Our repertoire is classical, usually the standard works. We have done Mozart, we have done Beethoven, we have done Handel, we have done Carmina Burana—all the warhorses. (I am listening right now to our 1992 recording of Rossini’s Stabat Mater, which makes the Orff sound like chamber music). Mostly, though, we do requiems, the mass for the dead. It is a beautiful form, a very traditional form. Although my voice is getting croaky with age and allergens, I am in it for the long haul. I will sing requiems until my own and be sorry I could not sing at that one.

Marathons and requiems are both of a satisfying length. A marathon, of course, can be almost too “satisfying,” while a requiem typically takes thirty-five or forty minutes to perform. These are serious commitments. Both go from point A to point B, as it were. The gun goes off or the baton comes down and you are off and running or off and singing. There is no dropping out. There is intense focus on the job at hand. There is a blessed goal—the finish line, the final “Amen”—shimmering in the distance.

Training is crucial. You cannot enjoy—yes, that is the word I would use—a marathon if you have not trained just as hard as you can. Most trainers advise you to rack up fifty or sixty miles in your last week of training, and it is traditional to finish that week with a 20-mile run (the last six miles, in the actual race, you run on guts and glory, the Adrenaline Express). The chorus rehearses for two hours every Tuesday night for over three months. I find the ethos of music very bracing. It is one of the few areas I know anymore where “close enough” is not good enough. Our leader, Professor Brad Ellingboe, is a genial taskmaster most of the time, but a taskmaster nonetheless. Perfection is the goal and even if that is unrealistic in this vale of tears, we don’t give up. Do it over. Do it over. Do it over.

Both are group endeavors. True, the San Diego Marathon—close to twenty thousand entrants last year—is a tad larger than the UNM Chorus and you are out to do your individual best, not to cooperate to make beautiful music. Nevertheless, the camaraderie is still there. In a marathon you suffer together, laugh together, even encourage the competition (“Lookin’ good!”). In a requiem, you are clearly all in it together, offering help in the tough parts if you can, seeking help if you can’t. You are bonded in a beautiful cause.

They are journeys, these marathons and requiems. You know the whole trip intimately, from Balboa Park to the Marine Corps Depot, from the Introit to the final Elegy. Here is the long flat on Friars Road, here the pull over the two bridges in Mission Bay, here that heartbreak of a hill up to the Pacific Highway. And here is the Kyrie, familiar as your own hand, here the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei, here the heartbreak and joy of the soul’s final triumph (with a note that you thought you could not possibly reach).

Each happens only once. You can record the performance but, as Brad is always at pains to remind us, it is only a recording, a record, a second-best. It is not, really, what happened on the 24th of April in Popejoy Hall at the University of New Mexico. And the 2007 running is not the 2006 running and will not be the 2008 running: there will be different stories to tell, different disappointments or elations. Each performance is unique and will inevitably be over, the singer silent, the runner gimping off past the finish line.

Some years ago we were rehearsing a requiem by the contemporary British composer John Rutter, a beautiful piece with a recurring melody that was—I can’t resist the pun—to die for. But over the weeks an unease was growing in me. One night I turned to my friend Jim West and said, “Jim, this music is scaring the bejesus out of me!” “I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “It makes death much too attractive.” He was right. Requiems can be hazardous to your health. It goes without saying that marathons can be, too. Even in the best of them, around mile 23 a dark wish begins to bloom luxuriantly: anything to get you out of this, to stop the pain in your legs, your feet, your lungs. Sadly, to borrow from Mark Twain, nobody ever has the presence of mind to bring a gun!

And the goal, the shimmering goal, the blessed end.

You are in the home stretch, 30 yards from the finish line. The crowd is cheering, the big chronometer up ahead is taunting you (3:59:1l!). Stiff-legged, a poor parody of a runner, you call upon your gods, shake off the pain, and haul your sorry bones across that line! Another marathon, for good or ill, is part of your history.

Eight bars left. The final Amen. A mighty crescendo–the chorus and orchestra one organism, one consciousness—and a cascade of beauty coming to a final rest. The conductor lowers the baton and bows his head. A preternatural second of silence, then the audience is on its feet, applauding wildly. The world is again redeemed.

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