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Long-distance Call

Why do 40,000 choose to run a marathon?

When 40,000 peoplegather in New York City to embark upon what is tantamount to hours ofself-inflicted torture--get ready for it again, this Sunday at the39th annual New York City Marathon--there will be stories to tell. LizRobbins, a New York Times sportswriter, focuses on a half dozen of them in ARace like No Other, leading readers through the 2007 marathon with concurrentnarratives emblematic of the range of individual experience and motivation inplay.

If you run onemarathon, Robbins points out, it might as well be in New York, where the paththrough the city streets, bordered by some two million engaged spectators, canturn ordinary people into running stars and running stars into superheroes. Butwhy would anyone endure the misery of a 26.2-mile run, anywhere? Robbinsexplores the psyches of some of the sport's luminaries, such as Britain's PaulaRadcliffe, whose duel with Ethiopia's Gete Wami remains taut until the final,fateful mile, and Hendrick Ramaala, the South African runner out to erase afinish-line stumble that cost him the 2005 race by less than a second. Thebook's powerful figures, though, are less famous competitors, especially PamRickard, a recovering alcoholic less than a year removed from a DUI convictionthat separated her from her children for months.

In each chapterRobbins sets the race scene, then breaks off into biography and ruminationabout a main character or one of numerous walk-ons (an accordion player at mile14 or folks who've run 20 straight marathons). Her method can feel forced, andthe book sometimes falls victim to Robbins's determination to show the outeredges of her reporting; asides about, say, a building's Dutch origins feel moredutiful than relevant. But Race finds its stride. One strong passage describesthe run through an Orthodox Jewish part of Brooklyn (the rabbis look askance)and ties it to the life of Fred Lebow, the marathon's impassioned cofounder.Race gets closer to this marathon than an avenue railbird, and it leavesimpressions not fleeting, but lasting.--K.K.

The Pop CultureGrid

How do sports stars fit in?

For Halloween I’d like to dress as . . .

Movie that scared me to death

It’s time for Madonna to . . .

I was _____ in a former life

Michael Myers, Jason or Jigsaw?

NICK COLLINS Packers S

Jigsaw

The old movie that had three clowns

Retire and sit down

Superman

Michael Myers

AARON VOROS Rangers C

Garth from Wayne’s World

Pet Sematary

Retire

A bricklayer

Jigsaw

STEVEN JACKSON Rams RB

Jesus

Halloween

Retire

Wall Street CEO-tycoon

Michael Myers

PATRICK LALIME Sabres G

A bullfrog

Halloween

Sing again

A helicopter pilot

Michael Myers

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CHRIS MCGRATH/GETTY IMAGES (RAMAALA)

LEADING MEN Elite runners like Ramaala, left, make for just a few of the story lines in Robbins's absorbing book

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KATHY WILLENS/AP (MADONNA)

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EVERETT COLLECTION (MYERS)

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WARNER BROS./PHOTOFEST (SUPERMAN)

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TIM CHAPMAN/GETTY IMAGES (BULLFROG)

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BILL WIPPERT/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (LALIME)

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JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (JACKSON)

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CLAUS ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGES (VOROS)

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MIKE MCGINNIS/CAL SPORT MEDIA (COLLINS)