Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Running man: was it Pheidippides or Eucles?

The weather in the Panhandle was cool and rainy on Saturday, October 13. The rain was scattered, light, and intermittent, but welcome all the same. Temperatures hovered in the 50’s and the winds were gusty at times, but all in all, it was a very pleasant day for mid-October in this part of the country.

As I sat in the warm comfort of my automobile, I occasionally flicked the windshield wipers into action, clearing my view enough to see the gravelly field in front of me, practically in the shadow of Dome Rock.

When the wipers did their work, what had been a blur of color resolved into parallel lines of colorful pennants and a young woman, dressed in a red hooded jacket and grasping a small cow bell. She looked wet and miserable.

Every few minutes a human form would lurch out of the mist a few hundred yards away, churning ever closer to my observation point, grim and weary determination written in their gait and, as they came closer, clearly written in their facial expression as well. As they neared, the cold and wet young woman transformed from huddled misery into a smiling, cheering dervish of activity, loudly clanging her cow bell and shouting encouragement.

This was the scene near the finish line of the inaugural Monument Marathon.

I was there, along with my Mom and a nephew, to cheer on our sister/daughter/mom.

This was the third marathon for my sister, Jenny Jennings of Lincoln, Neb. Her goal was to finish in under four hours. She turned 42 on October 14, the day after the marathon.

As the rain cleared we left the car behind and strolled up to the crowd gathered near the finish line. The half-marathon participants – those running a 13.1 mile course – were finishing, and at just a few minutes before 11 a.m., so was the first full marathon finisher. The full marathon had started at 8 a.m. at the nature center in the Wildcat Hills. The course ran 26.2 miles along Highway 71, meandering along the county roads south of Gering, through Gering itself, along a big loop around Scotts Bluff National Monument, and finishing at Five Rocks Amphitheater.

We joined a small group at the finish line. We were all armed with cameras and hoping to get a shot of “our” runner as he or she finished. Many of those waiting were local and attending their first marathon. “I can’t imagine why anyone would run 26 miles,” was a common statement. At one point someone asked, “Why do they call it a marathon?” The small group seemed genuinely puzzled, and no one offered up the answer. Dredging through the sludge of memory, I offered up what I remembered from high school and college history.

“During the Peloponnesian War between Greece, and, um, Persia? Well, anyway, at the Battle of Marathon in what, about 700 B.C.? Somewhere in there. Anyway, when the battle ended a Greek soldier ran from the battlefield to, um, wherever the generals were, to report. Maybe it was Thermopylae to Marathon. Anyway, he had to run about 26.2 miles. So that’s why it’s called a marathon, and why it’s 26.2 miles.” Or words to that effect.

My high school and college history teachers would have shaken their heads at my recap, and it wouldn’t have passed muster in a history exam. I dug out my Western Civ textbook when I got home (anyone else hold on to their enormously expensive college textbooks?) and found that I’d mangled some of the details.

But I was close.

The battle did take place at Marathon, the Greeks were fighting the Persians, and the soldier did run approximately 26.2 miles.

But the battle took place in September, 490 B.C. About 210 years later than I thought. The runner was either a fellow named Pheidippides or a different soldier named Eucles. The history is a bit confused because no primary documents remain. The tale, which is very likely true in at least some respects, comes to us from the historians Plutarch and Lucian of Samosata, who wrote in the first and second centuries A.D. respectively. That’s more than a half-millennium after the events took place.

Herodotus, said to be the Father of History and who lived at the time of Marathon, wrote that Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta and back – a distance of 300 miles – to call the Spartans to battle against the Persian invasion. This is certainly possible, but because Herodotus relied on verbal accounts as sources, cited no confirming documents, and often reported fanciful tales, his version is considered questionable.

Plutarch and Lucian report that the soldier ran from Marathon to Athens. So much for my faulty recollection of a Thermopylae-Marathon route. The distance between those two cities is 135 miles. To add salt to my wounded historical pride, the Battle of Thermopylae, though also fought between the Greeks and Persians, took place ten years later than the Battle of Marathon.

I guess that 100 miles and 10 years is reasonably close for a top-of-the-head recollection from a broken-down cow puncher.

So there’s a bit of the history. I find the Greco-Persian wars quite interesting, and think the history is worth reading. Though 2,500 years have passed, ancient Greece was the birthplace of our Western Civilization; the birthplace of our American Republic as well.

As to why people run marathons, I suspect there are as many reasons as runners. But the 26.2 mile marathon is perhaps the oldest physical benchmark of all time. Those who know a bit of the history must wonder, as I do, whether they could match the feat of this long-dead Greek soldier. I never ran a marathon, and I doubt I ever will. So I’ll never know. But my sister knows, and my heart nearly burst with pride as I watched her cross the finish line.

How did Sis do? She finished 27th overall, and third in her age group. Her time was 4:03:13, with a mile-pace of 9:16.

Jenny Jennings, a marathoner from Lincoln, Neb., crosses the finish line at Five rocks Amphitheater in Gering Oct. 13. Jennings was competing in the inaugural Monument Marathon and finished the 26.2 mile course in just over four hours. Jennings grew up on a Kimball County ranch. Click for a larger image.

She was a bit disappointed in her performance, having hoped to finish in under four hours. She would have done so at a mile-pace of 9:09. Think of that. Seven seconds per mile. Over 26 miles. Marathoners compete primarily against themselves, of course, but my goodness – what a performance!

I salute all of the participants. They’ve done it, I haven’t. Those are some pretty awesome athletes in my book.

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