Note: This commentary was written in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Maybe it was because my legs were burning from running a half marathon on the trails at Babcock State Park last Saturday. Or maybe it was because of memories of watching the finish line or slogging seemingly endless marathon miles with -- or, more accurately, behind --family and friends. For whatever reason, the news of the Boston terrorist attacks hit me hard.
I've always considered marathons to be special events. Sacred even. They symbolize a lot of things for me. For one thing, the 26.2 mile run is a good metaphor for life and for the long struggle for social justice. During one of the low points of this legislative session, a friend reminded me that "progress is an endurance sport."
For historical reasons, marathons can also be seen as a celebration of the survival of an open and democratic society. The event takes its name from the place of a battle between a huge force of invading Persians and a hastily assembled Athenian force in 490 BC. The word itself means "fennel field," the field in question being about 25 miles away from the democratic city-state.
The Athenians had recently thrown off the rule of tyrants and were beginning their great experiment with self-rule. They incurred the wrath of the Persian emperor when they attempted to assist Greek colonies in Ionia as they rebelled in an effort to regain their independence.
According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the proto-marathoner Pheidippides was a professional runner who covered the distance between Athens and Sparta (around 150 miles by the route he took) in two days in an effort to urge the Spartans to resist the invaders.
Along the way, Herodotus reports that Pheidippides had an encounter with the Greek god Pan, who pledged friendliness to Athens.
Run that kind of mileage and you're liable to see all kinds of Greek gods ...
The Spartans were sympathetic but were in the midst of a religious festival and couldn't send an army until the moon was full, so he had to slog back empty handed.
(This lesser-known run of Pheidippides inspired the invention in 1983 of the Spartathlon, a 246K/153 mile jaunt between the two cities for those who can't be bothered with a mere 26.2.)
At the battle, the line of Athenian hoplites (heavily armed infantry) was thin. The Persians charged the center, but the Athenian left and right closed in like hinges and prevailed.
According to legend, after the battle Pheidippides ran the 25 miles back to Athens to deliver the news. As the story goes, he said "Rejoice, we conquer" and fell dead.
Then, as now, you can overdo it.
This was the subject of a poem by Robert Browning. Here's a stanza:
...Yes, he fought on the Marathon day:
So, when Persia was dust, all cried "To Akropolis!
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,