Curse you, Edward VII!
Legend has it that 2505 years ago (490 BCE) the Greek soldier Phidippides ran to Athens from Marathon to announce victory in the eponymous battle over the Persians. The approximately 25-mile mission (the exact distance depends on which route he chose) took its toll on the messenger: he dropped dead after delivering his news. (There’s a t-shirt floating around runner trade-shows that says, “Phidippides had the right idea!”) When the modern Olympic Games created the “marathon” race in 1896, in a nod to ancient grandeur and the hope of future reverence, it set the distance at a rounded 40,000 meters–the equivalent of 24.85 miles. From that point on, things get murky.
While we know for sure that the 1908 London Olympic Marathon was set at 26.2 miles, the reason for this seems to have been lost in the city’s legendary fog. Some say the royal family demanded that the runners not finish at White City Stadium as programmed, but pound the extra pavement it would take to get from there right up to King Edward VII’s spectator-box at Windsor Castle. Others arrogantly denounce this as apocryphal (Hah! You believe that?!), citing everything from anticipated stadium-doorway malfunction (necessitating a mini-detour) to indecisive organizers (up to then the distance was not uniform at every running). Whatever the reason, the marathon evolved into a race of 26.2 miles, or 42.195 kilometers. And there, after years of intense Olympic Committee bickering, it stayed, once it was adopted as official at the 1924 Paris games. With the big 26 (or 42 in kilometerland) looming large in a runner’s mind, those additional foot-strikes become physical and psychological agony–leading some marathoners to joke that they train on only .2 miles (.195 kms) because “those are the hardest!”
My first marathon was Paris, in 1994. On the bus home from picking up my number-bib, I opened the thick race-info booklet that came in the accompanying goody bag. Jacques Chirac was mayor and the booklet’s greeting message was from him. Although I thought that he had probably not written these words himself, I devoured them with solemn awe and gratitude, as if he were sitting next to me, delivering them.
Among the requisite congratulations for months of training and the expected good wishes for a great event, one sentence (addressed, obviously, to those not expecting to make it to the winner’s podium) stood out: “This is not a race against the clock; it’s a race against yourself.” Trite? Yes. Hokey? Absolutely! But I’ve since repeated the vow that if I ever meet Mr. Chirac, the first thing I’ll do is thank him for a declaration that has seen me through 24 such races – or, in pavement-pounding terms, through 1,012.68 kilometers (628.8 miles).
Before technology, runners were left to their own devices in terms of honesty. The clock started – for everyone – when the gun went off and stopped for each runner when he or she crossed the finish line. On the competitors’ side, the disadvantage of this low-tech system was that since the thousands, and often the tens of thousands, of them could not all burst forward at once, the number of minutes it took back-of-the-packers to follow the rest of the racers to the start line (sometimes as much as a quarter of an hour) was added to their actual, certified, finishing time. For the organizers wanting a pristine event but with nothing to track the runners along the way, the disadvantage was that, despite the spirit of Mr. Chirac’s stirring message – and similar messages in race-info booklets in marathon-cities scattered across the planet – an occasional participant took the subway. Maybe not 42.195 kilometers worth of subway, but a couple of Point-A-to-Point-B assists.
Then, about 15 years ago, came the chip – a little round transmitter that attached to runners’ shoelaces and recorded the exact time they stepped onto receptor carpets at the start and finish lines and strategic points in between. Replaced by the even more advanced and less inconvenient (no intricate shoelace-attaching maneuvers) RFID bands incorporated into number bibs, the chip ushered in the era of the true race against yourself: there are no receptor strips in the subway, and you have to step on every one for your race to officially count.
So now here we all are – in major marathons, more than 35,000 of us – the inveterate racers-against-ourselves and those technologically forced to be. And what fun it is, slogging along those kilometers, to pick out the ones meeting that challenge creatively!
At the London Marathon there was the quite overweight young man who seemed to be counting every step aloud. Every footstrike. Centimeter by centimeter. “Seven thousand fifty two,” I heard him say when I passed him the first time. Thirty-one thousand and four,” he coughed out when I lagged back next to him toward the end of the race. Brilliant, I thought: his unwavering focus on the numbers’ sounds must be helping him ignore their cumulative effect on his ill-equipped body.
In New York I witnessed “Miss Congeniality” -a woman so old she looked like she had accompanied Phidippidès on his 490 BC run from Marathon to Athens – who stayed the course by attempting to greet every spectator along the way. She screamed thanks to the women chanting “Go, girl, go,” high-fived the children and flirted with their respective husbands and fathers, so distracting herself with hospitality that I was sure her run would take care of itself.
But my favorite was the crier, Paris 2012. Advancing at about the same pace, we wound up in each other’s space at several points along the route. When I initially spotted her at the 3-kilometer mark, she seemed to be crying. At about 7.5 km, I could hear the sobs from several meters away. It appeared that each time she passed a kilometer marker, her weeping intensified. She was keeping afloat on her tears. And there she was again as we limped out of the arrival zone, our finisher-medals draped triumphantly around our necks. “Pain?” I finally asked. “Emotion!” she answered. She’d won the race against herself.
Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.
(Best of luck Shari for this year’s Paris marathon! Look for her in the pack wearing her FUSAC hat! We’re behind you -in spirit- all the way Shari)
PS: But what does the word marathon actually mean? In contrast with the glorious myth behind it and the valiant sport it represents, marathon (Μαραθών) has a very prosaic definition in Greek – “a field of fennel.” It is in that fennelfield that the Greeks overcame the Persian army. — quote from Theumlaut