Tuesday, April 16, 2013

More Marathon Madness

Author's Note:  today's blog was prepared before any news of the terrible bombings at the Boston Marathon.  As a nation, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.

Methinks Marathon Monday manufactures much myth and misconception, minus more meaning (nice alliteration there, eh Cute English Adjunct Proff?)  So, in order to set the record straight on this 26.2-mile race with a long historical pedigree, Adjunct Proff is going to spend an entire blog on the real Marathon, a battle fought between the Ancient Greeks against the Ancient Persians way back in Ancient Greece (Q: What does one find in Ancient Greece?  A: Ancient bacon!)

Nobody move!  I just KNOW that contact lense is around here SOMEWHERE...
In September of 490 BCE (Before Crap Existed), 20,000 Persian fighters invaded the Greek mainland in order to punish Athens for helping out the Ionian Greeks in their rebellion of the last two years.  The Athenians managed to scratch together about 10,000 hoplite soldiers, plus an additional couple hundred Plateans, Athens' allies.  One of the Generals, Militades, advocated attack.  Other generals pointed out that they were outnumbered 2 to 1 and that an attack would be suicide.  The command was split: 5 in favor of attack, 5 against.  Because of the deadlock, they went to an official called the Polemarch to resolve the question.  Militades spoke to the Polemarch thusly, according to Herodotus:

'On you therefore we depend in this matter, which lies wholly in your own power. You have only to add your vote to my side and your country will be free - and not free only, but the first state in Greece. Or, if you prefer to give your vote to them who would decline the combat, then the reverse will follow.'

Miltiades by these words gained Callimachus; and the addition of the polemarch's vote caused the decision to be in favor of fighting.

Gonna whomp us some Persian booty!
The Greeks took their entire force and stretched it out as far as it could go, right in front of the Persians.  Then, they did what at the time appeared nothing short of suicidal: they charged directly at the Persians at a dead-run!  One can only guess what was going through the minds of the Athenians: free my country from Persian despotism!  hurrah for Athens!  death or glory!  What was about to go through the head of the average Persian soldier was, of course, a Greek spear.  The Greek center wavered and faltered a bit, but the flanks closed in on the Persians, smothered them and totally chewed them apart.
Wait: we outnumbered them and we're LOSING?  WTF?!?
The Persians then fought their way back to their boats, hoping to save themselves and to attack the city of Athens itself.  The Athenians then mushed-back to Athens and fortified the city.  Seeing it so well defended, the Persians did the sensible thing: they gave up and sailed for home, leaving the Greeks to do what they had always done before: grow grapes, make wine, bugger each other and cook everything in olive oil.

So, how does all of the above turn into a race from Boston's ex-urbs, up the hideous "Heartbreak Hill," and
Do these ancient running shorts
make my butt look big?
down through the heart of the Commonwealth's biggest and snazziest city?  It all has to do with a soldier named Pheidippides   Everybody knows that the Big P (ok, maybe only a few of his friends called him that!) ran from the Plain of Marathon to Athens.  Many also know that this is a distance of 26.2 miles.  Several of you might even know that the poor bugger died once he got back to Athens, presumably from the stress the run.  What only a select number of total history geeks know is that this was Pheidippides' second or third marathon that day, depending on how you count it.

Since there weren't phones, radios or even reliable signal flags in Ancient Athens, the way messages got around was by runners.  Every army employed a number of long distance runners to keep in communication with the civilian authority and different parts of their army.  That September day, Pheidippides had already run from Athens to Marathon to relay the decision of the Polemarch.  He then did what his general expected of him: picked up his shield and spear, and fought the Persians all day.  Once the Persians beat it back to the boats, his general sent him on yet another run back to Athens (which was uphill from Marathon) with the news of the Athenian victory.  True to his word, Pheidippides made it to Athens, collapsed, spoke the words, "Rejoice, for we conquer," and then died.

So, Pheidippides wasn't really the first Marathon runner --he was the first ever extreme iron-man-triathlete in history, running two marathons and fighting for his life in a battle in between.  Wow.  No wonder the entire world remembers Pheidippides and his run of 26.2 miles.

Long distance running had always been a part of the Olympic Games in ancient times, although it wasn't called a Marathon (just the bloody-long-foot-race).  It wasn't until 1879 that the English poet, Robert Browning (Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sweetie) wrote the poem, Pheidippides, that the story makes its way into that realm between history and myth.  Organizers of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 were casting about for an event that would really tie-in the whole Classical Greek thing, when someone remembered Browning's poem and suggested they have a Pheidippides race.  Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, thought it was a good idea, but the name was, in his words, "wicked rhetahded," so another Frenchman, Michel Breal, suggested Marathon instead, and Marathon is has been ever since.
I won the Pheidippides?
Aw HELL no, I won the Marathon!
Today, Marathons aren't just run in the Olympics.  Cities and towns, large and small, all over the world host Marathon runs --even Disney's  Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida has one.  And it's not just runners that compete: wheelchairs also make the grueling trip.   There are different t divisions for men and women, and there are even half-Marathons for less ambitious runners.  Over the years some pretty colorful characters have emerged, like Frank Shorter, whose 1972 Summer Olympics win would revive the sport in the United States.  Then there was the infamous Rosie Ruiz, a woman who "won" the 84th Boston Marathon because she took the Green Line Subway for a big part of the race.  Needless to say, she was stripped of her laurel crown and subsequently set a world record for the sprint in her getaway from thousands of totally pissed-off Bostonians.

I would be remiss if I didn't say something about the tragedy of the 2013 Boston Marathon.  To whomever did this: all you managed to do was kill some completely innocent people and maim a few more.  You did Nothing to the heart and spirit of the city you so cowardly attacked; you did Nothing to stop people from running and enjoying watching others run; and as far as history goes, your name and twisted cause will mean Nothing and will be forgotten, whereas the race will continue and the souls of all the innocents will be received into the hands of a loving God.

Remember this: Pheidippides was a soldier; the race he ran has been honored throughout the ages.  We shall never, never forget and we shall never, never give up the race for fear.  Today, everyone who runs, walks, gets around in a wheelchair or who loves sport can proudly say, "We are all Boston Marathon Champions!"
Just try to stop us!

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