So, when Persia was dust, all cried, “To Acropolis!
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
Athens is saved, thank Pan, go shout!” He flung down his shield
Ran like fire once more: and the space ‘twixt the fennel-field
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
Till in he broke: “Rejoice, we conquer!” Like wine through clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, – the bliss!
Pheidippides, Robert Browning, 1879.
Today marks 3 weeks since I started my challenge to ‘run the dates’ i.e. to run the same number of miles [or more] each and every day as the date in the month; 21st of November therefore equals 21 miles to complete today. And it’s starting to get difficult at around 4 hours of running a day now [and increasing by 11 minutes a day, or more] given that whilst I trained for an Ultra event for 9 months this year I have never been above 100 miles in a week before and I am now up to 122 miles in the last seven days [will be 129 if today is completed successfully].
I thought I’d share a potted history of longer distance events and some noteworthy achievements that I find inspirational in my quest and demonstrate how truly amazing the human body is and the heights to which the mind can soar [and conversely how very much most of us therefore limit ourselves in modern life] given that arguably we are natural long distance runners.
Panathenaic amphora [333-332 BC] in the British Museum, depicting three long-distance runners.
490 BC: Although Ultra distance running is a relatively recent sport, beginning in the late 1860’s [in the Western world anyway: think the Native American Rarámuri people of northwestern Mexico who are renowned for their long-distance running ability], there are well known examples from the ancient world. Most know the story of Pheidippides, at least in part [though the story is most likely a ‘romantic invention’ based on several different exploits], as alluded to in the Browning poem. The 280-mile run between Athens and Sparta and back again over two/three days, then the 25 miles from the Marathon battlefield back to Athens whence the famous words “Joy, we win!” before expiring.
1888: Though there were races over long distances as wagers between the running footman of the aristocracy and gentry in the 18th Century it wasn’t until the late 19th Century that ‘Pedestrianism’ caught on as a sporting event when the six-day walk became a fiercely competitive, big money, big crowd indoor sport [with a “Long-Distance Championship of the World”] and records topping 600 miles by 1888 when interest in the six-day event was waning and events had become “go-as-you-please”, i.e competitors could run if they wished.
1921: In the early 1900’s pedestrianism had died out as bicycle and automobile racing took all the attention and sponsors’ money, but the first South African 90 km Comrades Marathon, held to commemorate soldiers who died during World War I, reawakened interest in ultra events and has since become the world’s largest race above the marathon distance [now capped at 13,000 participants].
1953: The 54 mile London to Brighton Ultramarathon [along a popular car touring route] was inaugurated [though a race was held over this course regularly since 1899].
1970’s: The ‘running boom’ of participation in marathons begins a resurgence of popular interest in longer distance running. In 1973 the 24-hour event is revived and races are held in Italy, South Africa and Great Britain.
1982: Five British RAF officers set out to prove that the journey of Greek messenger Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta is indeed feasible. The next year the Spartathlon is born; a now annual 245 km race along the historic route.
1984: Yiannis Kouros sets 16 world records at a New York 6-day race [some of which had stood since 1888] smashing the existing records at every time greater than 12 hours. Later that year he set a new 24 hour world record of 177 miles.
1986: The inauguration of the seven day Marathon des Sables, across the Moroccan Sahara. This is considered by many to be one of the toughest events in the world. Another noticeable example is the Badwater race in Nevada, which aims to go from the lowest to the highest point in the continental United States over a distance of 135 miles.
1997: The longest certified road race in the world, the 3,100 mile Self-Transcendence Race is inaugurated by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team. The current course record is 41 days 08:16:29, set by Wolfgang Schwerk in 2006.
2005: Jesper Olsen completes his circumnavigation of the world, running 26,000 km across four continents over a period of only 22 months.
2005: Dean Karnazes completed one of the most awe inspiring runs of all time when he ran nonstop for over 80 hours and covered an incredible 350-miles around the San Francisco Bay area.
Today I completed a mere 22 miles … for 130 miles this week.