Thursday, 22 April 2010
On Patriots Day, April 19, 2010, 17 cadets of the West Point Marathon Team and several officers joined over 23,000 runners in the 114th Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual marathon. Now we all know something about the battle fought at Marathon in Greece on 12 September 490 BC. At the very least, we know that the Greeks won, because after the victory they sent a runner from Marathon to Athens to proclaim the victory. Sadly, upon reaching Athens, he died immediately upon making his glorious announcement. Some, either marathon runners, those of Greek heritage, or students of ancient history, may even know the name of this famous runner: Philippides or Pheidippides. Others may recall that the outnumbered Greeks won by running straight at the Persian line, eventually enveloping both flanks, inflicting heavy casualties, and forcing the Persians to withdraw by ship. Most everyone, however, knows that the 26-mile, 385 yard race (standardized in 1921 based upon the distance run in 1908 in London), now known as the marathon, is based upon the dedication of a Greek messenger. These myths are now commemorated by over 500 marathons annually around the world.
Due to the many changes in calendars, the date is merely an educated guess. The Greeks, predominantly Athenians, did win, but it is unlikely that they ran the entire distance—about 1,500 meters—between battle lines in their heavy armor and with their long spears. More likely, they merely ran the last 200 meters to traverse the danger zone of the Persian archers in as short a time as possible. Now for Philippides: he was a great runner with enviable endurance, but he probably didn’t run the 25 miles or so from Marathon to Athens. Actually, he ran and marched the 42 miles from Marathon to Sparta in about two days to seek reinforcements. The Spartans sent forces, but they were delayed due a religious ceremony (not wishing to depart until after the full moon) and arrived too late to participate in the battle. Philippides, however, returned almost immediately. After the battle, the entire Greek force marched the 25 miles back to Athens at a rapid pace to defend the city against an attack by the Persian forces traveling by ship, but local forces had proved adequate for the defense. It is unclear if Philippides was among them and unlikely that he died then.
Nevertheless, when the Olympic Games were re-instituted at the end of the 19th Century, a long road race from Marathon to Athens seemed an ideal set piece event, both unique and steeped in victorious and inspiring Greek history. Thus a modern Olympic event was born. Fittingly enough, the winner of the laurels in the first marathon was a former Greek soldier (1893-95), Spiridon Louis (12 Jan 1873—26 Mar 1940). The field consisted of 13 Greeks and four foreigners. Initially, a French runner led but fell out; then an Australian took the lead but fell out. The win was significant because, until then, no Greek had won a track and field event. Thomas Hicks, an American, won in 1904, and his countryman, John Hayes, won in 1908 in London. An American did not win again until Frank Shorter did so in 1972, and one has not won since.
Back to the Boston Marathon, the Marathon Team performed admirably and beat Navy in a competition passed on the top three runners from each academy. Plebe Colin Chapman, finished in 2:44:59, 330th overall. Matt Cincotta ’10 was close behind at 2:48:45, and Ben Troxell followed at 2:53:27. The women’s team was led by Diana Bunjovac ‘10, who ran a personal best of 3:17:41 despite an earlier stress fracture. Classmate Ashley Ehasz, also ran a personal best of 3:18:22, but MAJ Shoshannah Jenni ‘99, women’s team OIC, finished in 3:07:25. The cadet team also had a great year in 2007, with Brandon Corbin ‘07 running a team best 2:38:13 and Bryan Bhark ’07 and Nate Lubba ‘09 posting times of 2:47:05 and 2:47:27 respectively. The cadet record for women is held by Anne Stouffer ’86, who ran a 3:00 at Boston in 1985. Tamela Halstead, ex-’85, ran a 3:04 in 1983, and Kimberly Griffin ’89 ran a 3:06 in 1987 and 1988. Gail O’Sullivan O’Dwyer ’81, the first female cadet to qualify for the Boston Marathon and the author of Hard as Nails, posted a time of 3:08:06 in 1980. Her future husband got her interested in running while they both were cadets. If all this talk of marathons appeals to your inner runner, see below.
If you are so disposed, mark a bright red circle around the date 31 October on your 2010 calendar. For on Halloween this year, the Athens Classic Marathon will be run from Marathon to Athens, commemorating the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon. Runners from around the world are registered to participate in this oldest of all marathon races that has only been run 27 times since its inception. Although the first Olympic marathon was run in the summer of 1896, the first Athens Classic Marathon (although they did not call it that at the time) was run a bit earlier—in the spring of 1896—as a qualifier. On the other hand, the Boston Marathon, which began in 1897, has been held annually, in one form or another, ever since—with some modifications during the war years.
Even if the blood of a distance runner courses through your veins, however, you are too late to register for the marathon or the power walk (closed out in March). There still may be openings in the 5K and 10K races. A provisional limit of 10,000 runners was announced—approximately the strength of the Athenian forces at Marathon 2,500 years ago. Along the way, the runners will pass the sacred burial ground of the Athenian dead of Marathon, for in Greek custom of the time, only the bravest of the brave were buried where they fell.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire.
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