In “Le Malade Imaginaire,” a comedy in three acts by the French playwright Molière that was first staged in 1673, Argan is such an hypochondriac that he wants to marry his daughter, Angelique, to his doctor’s nephew, who’s himself a doctor and son of a doctor. The farce, whose English title is “The Imaginary Invalid,” is a satire of the medical profession and France under Louis XIV. Argan is so obsessed with his imaginary ailments that he fails to see plots brewing in his household by his second wife and the doctors themselves.
In the days and hours before a marathon race, most runners are Argans. Out of the blue come ailments never heard of before and runners obsess over their origins and the affects they may have on the race.
(“What’s ailing me, doctor?” “Le Malade Imaginaire,” Painting by Honoré Daumier.)
In early 2007, my training for the Austin Marathon in Texas was mired in pain on my right shin. My sports doctor assured me nothing was wrong with my shin, and that I didn’t have a stress fracture, as I feared. A week before the race, I ran a half-marathon in the Bronx and could barely walk the morning after. On race day, the pain went away, as if by miracle.
Nine months later, I was getting ready to run the New York City Marathon. I woke up the morning of race day with extreme pain in my big toe’s nail. I could barely put my foot on the floor. It was as if ingrown nails had pierced through my skin and expanded overnight. I told my mother
, who was also running the race. She said it was psychosomatic. “I have a sore throat,” she added. At least she hadn’t gotten high fever, as happened in the evenings before some of her previous marathons. A few hours later, her throat and my nail were fine as we celebrated our times at the marathon — a 10th place in age group for her and a personal record for me.
(“Can you check my toenail?” Drawing of Moreau le Jeune.)
This year, six days before the Boston Marathon, the list of ailments combines old and new. The toenail pain is back. It’s on and off. I also have an on-and-off sore throat: they run in the family and usually get worse as I get closer to the race. Once in a while, I have a short-lived acute pain in the right hip. And sometimes, it’s the left hip. In the novelties department, my calves have felt extremely tight in the past week, and my right knee is sometimes bothering me.
The ailments aren’t always imaginary. In 2003, I interrupted training for the London Marathon because of a stress fracture in the right hip and last year, I dropped out of the Boston Marathon
seven days before the race after an MRI of my left hip showed a tear of the labrum, a cartilage in the socket of the hip joint. The challenge is to be able to sort the imaginary ills from the real ones.
“Le Malade Imaginaire” is Molière’s final play. The playwright, who suffered from tuberculosis, collapsed on stage on the fourth day of its run, as he was playing the role of Argan. Molière died a few hours later, in a cruel twist of fate.
In the final act of the play, Argan himself is cured from his obsession with sickness by becoming a doctor himself, in a farcical ceremony with songs and dance.
So runners, don’t worry about your imaginary ailments: you’ll be cured by getting a taste of your own medicine on race day — a grueling, 26.2-mile run.