Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 17 Jul 2014 04:49:33 -0400

Happy Hundredth

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from January 1996.)

Every few months a reader reminds me (usually gently) not to write too much about marathons. Running is about more than marathoning.

So is my running. But like everyone who has ever run a marathon, I have stories that MUST be told.

I have it on the best authority why this happens. Before he broke into Sports Illustrated, Kenny Moore wrote, “Human beings are reluctant to accept meaningless suffering. The pain in a marathon’s closing stages can be so great as to FORCE meaning upon the run.”

After the race, Moore observed, runners “hang stiffly on one another, too exhausted to untie their shoes – and jabber uncontrollably. The pain has made everything suffered so extraordinarily important that it HAS to be expressed.”

Multiply these feelings by the hundreds of thousands of people who have run this distance, and see why it is the most-talked-about, most-written-about event. By running a marathon, you become part of a proud history, richly reported. You join a parade of marathoners that stretches across the entire 20th century and beyond.

This event reaches triple-figure age in 1996. The marathon as a race was born at the first modern Olympics in Athens, a century ago.

The event grew out of a myth. A popular story passed down through the ages tells of a messenger named Phidippides running from Marathon to Athens – about 40 kilometers – with news of a major victory over the Persians. After gasping out his report, he promptly died.

It wasn’t a promising beginning, or a positive symbol, for long-distance running. And it probably didn’t even happen this way.

Classical literature suggests that Phidippides didn’t run just 40K but more than seven times that distance. A trained runner, he didn’t expire but went right back to his work delivering messages.

Perhaps it’s best that we accepted the myth instead of the real story. Otherwise, we might now be running 300-kilometer races in Phidippides’ honor.

The word “marathon” has come to represent all types of prolonged efforts–from “marathon dances” to “marathon tennis matches.” The uninitiated ask runners, “How long is your marathon this time?”

They’re all the same, which is another of the event’s attractions. A marathon in Boston is exactly the length of one in Rotterdam or Fukuoka. A marathon in 1996 is supposedly the same distance as one run in the 1920s (though measurement wasn’t as precise then), when the distance stabilized at 42.2K.

Throughout its first century, the marathon has stood as a centerpiece of the Olympics and served as a yearly rite of spring in Boston. But until the last 25 years, the race attracted little attention anywhere else.

Then marathons exploded in both number and size – and changed in character. Upfront the leaders ran for prize money. Farther back in the field came runners old and young, male and female, fairly fast and very slow.

The event welcomed them all. For most runners this wasn’t a race but a survival test. Surviving became a form of winning – just as noble in its own way as finishing first and setting records.

This attitude helps explain the still-growing appeal of the marathon. This race, which is about enduring and surviving, has endured and survived.

Mark its 100th birthday by recounting your own marathon milestones and planning to lay down some new ones. Let these stories help you recall your place in the event’s marvelous history and to make a place for yourself in its bright future.

UPDATE FROM 2014

Originally this piece went to Runner’s World as a column nominee. It didn’t make the cut there.

The magazine was celebrating its own 30th anniversary that month. The editors requested material on that theme.

A revision of the column above appeared in RW to mark another “centennial” that year. The Boston Marathon claimed 1996 as its “100th running.”

Neither of my columns acknowledged that claim. I argued, and still do, that 1996 was only the 99th Boston, since once during World War I a military relay had replaced the individual race. Boston’s “centennial” party started a year early anyway, with a record-sized field.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Latest released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

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