The Chicago Marathon
By Andrew Suozzo
University of Illinois Press Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-252-07421-1
Chapter One the marathon: from myth to actuality
Classical antiquity knew no such race as the marathon. Even the historical sources referring to Pheidippides' mythical run are scant and suspect. The first text that mentions one "Phidippides" is Herodotus's Histories in the fifth century B.C.E. Pheidippides, a day runner by profession, was sent as a herald to southern Greece to gain Spartan assistance in the war against the Persians. Herodotus never mentions Pheidippides at the battle of Marathon or his death as the heroic bearer of joyous tidings of the Athenian victory. Pausanias, who wrote around 174 C.E.-some six hundred years later-basically repeats Herodotus's account; likewise, he has nothing to say about the battle of Marathon or the death of Pheidippides (Pausanias, Attica, xxviii, 4-7, 149; Arcadia, 6-7, 169). In this text, the runner's name is transliterated differently as "Philippides."
The first and only reference to the Pheidippides legend as we know it comes from Lucian, who wrote some five hundred years after Herodotus. In this account, devoted to greetings, Lucian cites a "Philipiddes" as the courier who brought the news of the victory from Marathon to Athens. Uponarrival, he addressed the magistrates with "Joy to you, we've won" and then promptly died, presumably of overexertion (Lucian, 177). A slightly earlier version of this story is available in Plutarch's Moralia. The author, however, names a different courier: "most historians declare that it was Eucles who ran in full Armour, hot from the battle, and bursting in at the doors of the first men of the State, could only say, 'Hail! we are victorious!' and straightway expired" (Plutarch 503, 505).
Thus, the specific legend of the Marathon run is based on only a few lines of two classical sources that were written many centuries after the Athenian victory. This has not stopped contemporary authors from embroidering the tale and making groundless assertions, despite the widely known lack of evidence about Pheidippides. Robert Browning's nineteenth-century poem "Pheidippides" may well be the source of much contemporary confusion, as it conflates Herodotus's account of the courier's truly epic run to the Spartans and Lucian's account of the aftermath of the battle of Marathon. It is likely Browning's richly poetic imagination that created the image of the noble Pheidippides hurling down his shield at the end of the battle and running back to Athens only to die in the exultation of victory:
... "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine through clay, Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died- the bliss! (Browning, 227)
The modern-indeed, the first-marathon ever to exist was created at the end of the nineteenth century as perhaps the noblest event of the first Olympiad of the new era. It was the result of the collaboration between two Frenchmen, Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, and the classical philologist, Michel Bréal. It would be appropriately dubbed "an invented tradition."
The first marathon was about twenty-five miles and was won, to the delight of the local populace, by a Greek athlete, Spiridon Louis. Greeks also took second and third place, although the third-place runner was disqualified for cheating. The time of the first marathon champion was quite slow by today's standards (2:58:50 for 40 kilometers or nearly 25 miles); in fact, it was quite amazing that any of the runners actually managed to finish the race. It seems that the Greeks, fueled by a spirit of fervent patriotism, were the only runners who prepared themselves with any seriousness.
The first Olympic marathon generated strong interest in this footrace throughout much of the world. In the ensuing years, marathons were held in most western countries and sporadically throughout different regions of the United States. Chicago, St. Louis, and the New York area all had marathons that came and went. These races included very few runners. The whole notion of the marathon as a mass event does not really begin to develop until the 1960s in the United States-and even that date may be an overstatement.
This initial marathon growth in the 1960s was fueled by a new health consciousness that identified jogging with fitness. This new identification would merge with Cold War concerns in triumphant fashion with Frank Shorter's gold medal in the marathon of the 1972 Munich Olympics. In many ways, Shorter personified the convergence of several trends. A Yale graduate, he clearly represented the upper-middle class in the athletic arena. Victorious against the communist enemy, he also personified the American struggle against the highly competitive socialist republics of the east. Further, he projected an accessible image of health-not necessarily marathon victory-to upper-status Americans. Shorter had been preceded in the American public's consciousness by Amby Burfoot, the winner of the Boston Marathon in 1968, referred to as "Burfoot of Wesleyan" by the New York Times. Burfoot, formerly the editor-in-chief of Runner's World, also encouraged William Rodgers, fabled marathon victor during the 1970s and fellow Wesleyan alumnus, in his running (Cooper, 130). Burfoot had served in the Peace Corps in El Salvador after graduating from college, thus fusing the idealism of the Kennedy tradition with running acclaim. These male champions, all from New England, would be complemented by an illustrious female runner from Maine, Joan Benoit Samuelson, who for many years held the U.S. women's record, which she achieved in the 1985 Chicago Marathon. Like her male counterparts, Samuelson had graduated from a respected New England school, Bowden College. Clearly, this new set of middle-class, attractive, well-educated, distance-running champions had a direct impact on those Americans who had the means and the leisure to take up running. Henceforth, a new type of runner-the long-distance runner-would fuel the emerging running boom.
This new type of runner quickly became part of a mass movement rather than a professional elite. Sandy Treadwell sees the 1976 New York City Marathon as a watershed in marathon history-the race that began popularizing big-city marathons for masses of people (Treadwell, 19-21). Perhaps the critical event in marathon history occurred in 1975 when the legendary Ted Corbitt was trying to promote a marathon for teams from each of the city's boroughs. George Spitz, a running enthusiast and activist, altered Corbitt's idea and rushed to the New York Road Runners Club (NYRRC) president Fred Lebow with the idea of a five-borough course, which Lebow, in horror, initially rejected as unmanageable. But Spitz continued to press his idea, and Lebow, after presenting what he viewed as impossible terms, discovered that the city fathers were willing to meet them. Thus, the five-borough marathon was born, and the following year's 1976 race, with 2,000 entrants, was four times the size of the inaugural year's. No longer a Central Park event, the new marathon symbolized the unity and scope of New York City. It had become an urban festival.
By the early 1980s, the New York City Marathon confirmed that rapidly expanding fields of entrants were a genuine trend: in 1971, there were only 127 starters and 55 finishers; in 1981, some 4,000 runners finished the race. The New York City Marathon also highlighted another trend-that running was an upper-middle-class activity that attracted well-paid, urban professionals. The middle-class admirers of the marathon champions of the 1970s and 1980s began to emerge in force. The growing participation in marathons was strikingly evident in Chicago as early as 1977, when the newly founded Mayor Daley Marathon (the original name of the Chicago Marathon) drew a field of 4,200 runners, positioning itself as a strong rival of New York.
The growth of the field of runners and spectators has been nothing short of amazing. With only a few thousand participants in the early 1990s, the Chicago Marathon's field began to grow exponentially in the later part of the decade and into the new millennium: in 1995, registration numbered some 9,000; by 1999, it had climbed to over 29,000 with nearly 25,000 finishers; by 2003, it reached 40,000 registrants, its cap in 2004 and 2005. In 1995, a runner could register on the eve of the marathon; in 2004, marathon registration closed in August. In nine years (from 1995 to 2003), the Chicago Marathon increased by nearly 450 percent from an already substantial base-a growth rate that would make any CEO euphoric! Chicago is typical in this respect: large urban marathons in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and Honolulu experienced explosive growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s with between 30,000 to 40,000 registrants. New York and London, because of their exceptional appeal, had to impose caps earlier than Chicago. This is a far cry from the beginning of the century when the newly invented marathon drew minuscule fields. The modern mass marathon is quite another phenomenon; it is an event that enlists the energies of entire cities and celebrates not only athletic accomplishment but also the vitality and dynamism of the cities that sponsor it.
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The extraordinary situation usually referred to as the second running boom calls for an explanation. Some of the factors that propelled marathon running into such prominence were already in place earlier in the century; others have to do with broader, more recent value shifts that have dramatically increased the growth potential of marathons.
One of the most significant positive changes in this sport's growth was the association of distance running and good health, a notion that, as indicated earlier, began to emerge in the 1960s and reached a wider audience throughout the ensuing decades. As more and more people in affluent countries struggle with their weight, the growing threat of heart disease, and the general atrophy that comes from sedentary jobs and lives, they see running as an ideal activity to counter the physical deterioration that marks modern professional life. This positive association when applied to the marathon is largely an uncritical one because, although the general practices of jogging, distance running/racing, and training up to about twenty miles are considered healthy for physically fit people, running a marathon is emphatically not a healthy practice. It exceeds the body's limits. Nonetheless, so powerful is the notion of general fitness as a benefit of running that it is simply carried over to the marathon, which is often viewed as some kind of ultimate confirmation of top physical condition rather than the act of attenuated self-destruction that it actually is-at least for most mortals.
The marathon also has a particular appeal not only as a form of maintenance but also as an assertion of recovered health, of a physical rebirth. There are numerous personal stories of individuals suffering from obesity who have overcome serious weight problems by training for and running a marathon. Oprah, the media star and Marine Corps Marathon finisher, is perhaps the most celebrated example of this kind of personal transformation. But she is hardly alone; many people with life-threatening conditions such as heart disease have recovered from their afflictions and have provided triumphant proof of their fitness by completing a marathon. Here, time usually has little importance. Completing the ordeal is the paramount issue. The marathon thus represents a kind of certification of fitness, proof positive that an impaired individual can overcome adversity and prevail. The marathon assumes a metaphorical dimension; it is an assurance of the individual's ability to succeed in the inevitable future struggles that life will present.
This sense of physical triumph holds a powerful attraction for the middle-aged. Here, running the marathon assumes the dimension of a revolt against aging, a refusal to be consigned to the easy chair, and an assertion that a physically active life is as much their right as that of twenty-year-olds. It also implies a redefinition of the body culturally assigned to the aging individual. The marathon becomes an opportunity to explore the individual's potential to exceed the supposed limits of the body. Although even the young experience this testing, it is more dramatic for people already beyond youth in a culture that dismisses them as unworthy of consideration as physical entities. For the middle-aged woman or man, running is an act of defiance and a demand for cultural revision-a trend that is bound to continue as the population ages and simultaneously refuses to be deprived of the physical stimulations arbitrarily reserved for youth. In this age of erectile dysfunction drugs, it is hardly surprising and indeed is expected that the marathon will continue to exert increasing appeal on the graying population. The baby boomers are not a population segment that will vanish meekly into obscurity.
Whether for the middle-aged or those in the full bloom of youth, running exerts a powerful appeal in its admirable simplicity and accessibility. Despite the escalating cost of shoes, shorts, and numerous accessories, it remains a relatively affordable, uncomplicated sport that can be practiced alone or in a group. Running is a natural behavior, and although training and coaching can improve it, human beings do not need to be taught how to run. It can be a competition, a group social event, or a solitary activity. A healthy person of almost any age and of either sex can practice it. It is devoid of the violence found in many sports and is often associated with friendliness and courtesy. The introduction of competitions based on sex, age class (usually five-year segments), and weight (Clydesdale/goddess) means that, more than in almost any other sport (barring serious injury or other medical problems), individuals may continue competing throughout their lives and even with bodies clearly not designed to excel at racing, as in the case of the heavier subdivisions of a Clydesdale/goddess competition. The synergy generated by nearly universal accessibility to attenuated competition ensures this health-enhancing sport the potential for dynamic growth in the foreseeable future. But this growth is largely fueled by a noncompetitive, group-oriented participation; this kind of participation is linked to the current value shift that emphasizes inclusiveness rather than personal distinction. As American and world society continue to celebrate the virtues of diversity in the new millennium, a sport that emphasizes mass participation rather than excellence and concomitant exclusivity will grow. Viewed from this perspective, the marathon becomes not so much a contest, but rather a mass celebration in which thousands of extremely diverse individuals engage in a vast urban procession.
Americans have become acutely sensitive to the multiethnic and multiracial nature of their society. The all-white, suburban society depicted in 1950s sitcoms like Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet has long since vanished as the stereotypical representation of America. People are quite aware that, to survive, our society must embrace diversity or tear itself apart. Although the marathon remains a predominantly white sport, the body types and abilities of people who run it now span almost every imaginable category. Hence, the marathon (and other footraces as well) has increasingly become the domain of the nonathlete, the ungifted, marginally competent amateur. This participation is staunchly defended by writers like Bingham and, to some extent, even Galloway, who validate noncompetitive performances. This development is a manifestation of a growing hostility toward excellence. It has become far more important in our society that everyone who trains can become a participant, that all who finish should be considered victors. This tendency is similarly reflected in the educational system by grade inflation and social promotion. We place a high value on inclusion; the desire not to offend or leave out takes precedence over acknowledgment of significant achievement and criticism of poor performance. This collapse of standards is essential to marathon growth and its transformation into a happening that is far broader than a professional competition. Mass urban festivals cannot really afford to be picky.
Excerpted from The Chicago Marathon by Andrew Suozzo Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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