A Marathon Effort

The marathon is the highlight of many running calendars

by Noivedya Juddery Marathon. The word is now used to describe any great feat of endurance, in any field. Among runners, it is a symbolic distance - the longest running race in the Olympics, and the greatest challenge that can be safely faced by almost any serious runner, given the training. For many distance runners, the marathon is just one small challenge en route to a greater goal. As early as 1928, the Bunion Derby was held: a 3,422-mile transcontinental run from Los Angeles to New York. From an initial field of 199 eager runners, only 55 made it through the wind, rain, deserts and mountains to New York's Madison Square Garden. Perhaps the spiritual descendants of those finishers are the runners of the Self-Transcendence 3100-Mile Race in New York, some of whom dedicate two months, year after year, to competing in the race - the equivalent of nearly 120 marathons in a row. Yet a marathon itself is still a formidable task, the pinnacle of many running calendars. To Sri Chinmoy, a marathon can even be a spiritual journey. "Spiritual people often like running because it reminds them of their inner journey," he has said. "The outer running reminds them that a higher, deeper, more illumining and more fulfilling goal is ahead of them in the inner world, and for that reason running gives them real joy." The marathon race might seem to be an odd length: 42.195 km, or 26 miles 385 yards. Originally, the race had been 24 miles - until the London Olympics of 1908. As the British royal family wanted their children to see the race begin, the starting line was moved back to the private grounds of Windsor Castle, while the finish line remained at the same point in the Olympic stadium. The new, official distance has been used ever since. A minor change, you might imagine. Most experienced marathon runners, however, would admit that the extra two and a quarter miles can be an arduous task on its own. After running for so long, that extra length provides a significant challenge for the exhausted body. Indeed, at that historic 1908 race, Italian athlete Pietro Dorando was only 385 yards from the finish line, with a comfortable lead, when he faltered, overcome by the heat and humidity. Staggering, he was overtaken by another runner, and was unable to reach the finish line without support. The extra length made all the difference. Cynics, cheerfully discussing the perceived "dangers" of marathon running, talk of the first marathon runner. Legend has it that, on a hot day in 490 BC, an Athenian military courier ran the 24 miles from the battlefield on Marathon to Athens, to report that the Athenian army had defeated the Persians. "Rejoice! We have won," he gasped. Then he died of exhaustion. Such cynics overlook some of the important details of the legend. Firstly, the soldier was wearing a full suit of body armour, and carrying a shield. Secondly, he had run to and from Athens on the same day, effectively completing a double-marathon. We can assume that, despite his incredible fitness, his training regime might not have been as well-focused as most modern marathon runners. But what makes a champion? Speed? As the world marathon record edges closer to breaking two hours, it is a useful quality, but not the only one. Footwear? Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila won the 1960 Olympic marathon with bare feet, unable to find a comfortable pair of track shoes. At the next Olympics, he won again, this time wearing shoes. The makers of these shoes have advertised their role in the race, as the only shoes that could satisfy "Barefoot Bikila". (Conclusion: these shoes give you the same result as bare feet!) Bikila's 1964 win, however, was perhaps his most surprising, as he had suffered through an appendectomy only four weeks earlier. Obviously, Bikila's greatest asset was neither his footwear nor his physical health. It was something else: determination. Determination. American Clarence DeMar suffered from an abnormal heart and a twisted spine, which prevented him walking until the age of eight. He went on to win the Boston Marathon seven times, breaking a few world records in the process, and was known as "Mr Marathoner". Determination. In 1996, South African Josia Thugwane was shot in the head while in his car, and only escaped death by jumping from the moving vehicle. "I thought it might not be possible for me to run again," he said. But run he did, winning the Olympic marathon four months later. Determination. In 1904, a Cuban postman named Felix Carvajal was determined to represent his nation at the Olympics, held in St Louis, Missouri. This was in the days before most nations were sponsoring their athletes, so Carvajal paid for his fare to America through the somewhat more humbling act of begging money in Havana's town square. He set off to the US, but upon arrival in New Orleans, he was cheated by gamblers and ended up virtually penniless, 700 miles from St Louis. Unable to afford a ticket, he decided to run to the Games, begging for food on the way - and dressed in hiking boots, long pants and long-sleeved shirt. He made it to St Louis at the last moment, just as the marathon was about to begin. Despite the dusty course and the 100-degree (38-degree Celsius) heat, he was all set to run the event. Another athlete convinced him to cut off his sleeves and his pant legs - but despite his lightened load, the tough course would still have taken its toll on the sleep-deprived, malnourished Carvajal. Indeed, 17 starters (out of 31) were unable to finish. But even after his 700-mile trek from New Orleans, Carvajal still reached the finish line, coming fourth - and narrowly missing a medal. However, a place in a marathon is not the only measure of victory. As with so many things, Sri Chinmoy explains it best with poetry... "There are only three winners: "The one who competes with himself, "The one who crosses the finish line first "And the one who finishes the race."