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Going the distance to examine exercise

In 'Marathon Challenge,' 'Nova' offers up reality and physiology

So you want to run a marathon but can barely sprint to the local Starbucks? Good news. Anyone can run 26.2 miles.

As hard as the producers of tonight's one-hour "Nova" documentary, "Marathon Challenge," try to build suspense and foreshadow failure, that's the lesson of the show. Oh, and that we, as a sedentary society, have some serious work to do.

This message, in itself, is not new. Nor does it offer the promise of compelling TV. Fortunately, "Nova" 's producers have taken a lesson from the vapid and irresistible weight-loss reality show "The Biggest Loser." They tell the story through 13 self-described sloths, a group handpicked to test if somebody can go from the couch to the finish line of the Boston Marathon in only nine months.

Short answer: Yes.

The real story, though, is watching the muscle-free Team NOVA get to the starting line. We get pathos (divorce, dead parents, health scares), confession (Sama ElBannan's admission that she's been smoking again), and - remember, this is PBS - the science to explain the physiological impact of exercise.

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"Marathon Challenge" starts in the summer of 2006, when the group, selected from 100 applicants by co-producers Hillary Wells and Daniel McCabe, show up at the Tufts University track. The producers recruited the school's former longtime swim coach, Donald Megerle, and nutrition professor Miriam Nelson to get the team ready for Hopkinton.

The pair have considerable experience. They train 200 Boston Marathon runners, ranging from students to friends of the university, who raise money for the university. (Disclosure: I ran for the Tufts team, though I avoided the cameras on the few days we ran with the "Nova" group.)

The first day Team NOVA gathers, Megerle is not impressed.

"It's not an athletic group," he says, watching the slow jog. "They're pretty much dog meat, you know."

Not everyone is completely out of shape. Jonathan Bush, father of five and first cousin of the president, occasionally jogs and ran competitively in college. But he's going through a divorce, and doesn't show for the early sessions. Steve DeOssie, the former National Football League and Boston College linebacker, joins as a lark. This cigar-smoking 300-pounder admits he doesn't belong. "When I thought about this I realized it was so ridiculous it was intriguing," he says.

ElBannan, 28, is more typical. She's been smoking for years, and jokes that her only physical activity has been occasional night bowling. Then there's Betsey Powers-Sinclair, 41, who is 70 pounds overweight. The cameras emphasize this through a series of grimace-inducing, slow pans over her body.

Powers-Sinclair creates some of the only drama in "Marathon Challenge." Undergoing a test before starting training, the doctors detect an irregular heartbeat. They pull her off the treadmill, and hold her back from starting with the team.

"I fought this hard to get here and I just want to see it through," Powers-Sinclair pleads tearfully.

Eventually, she's allowed back.

Concessions were made for "Nova." Tufts nutritionist Nelson, in a recent interview, says she would have liked more time to train the team. But she felt the benefit of the show outweighed the downside of the shortened preparation time. "The point is to inspire others out there who are not active, to inspire them to become active by showing them that ordinary people can do extraordinary things," said Nelson.

There has already been a backlash from some marathoners on the Runner's World website. Some grouse about coveted Boston Marathon numbers being given to the interlopers. (Boston is the only major marathon that requires a qualifying time.) Others complain that, health-wise, taking somebody from the couch to the starting line is a bad idea.

But Nelson says the proof is in this year's Tufts marathon team. Seven of the "Nova" team members - including Powers-Sinclair, who has lost 50 pounds - have joined, meaning they're going to give Boston a second run.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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Marathon Challenge

On: WGBH, Channel 2

Time: Tonight at 8

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