April 15, 2013

It's personal

The last time I posted on this blog (Monday morning) the topic was endurance sports as a metaphor for the struggle for human justice and progress. At the time, I had no idea that a vile terrorist attack would occur targeting the Boston Marathon. Maybe I'm a little more sensitive to the issue with my legs still on fire from running a half marathon this Saturday on trails. Maybe not.

But I've always considered the marathon to be a sacred event, one the celebrates an ancient victory between the nascent forces of an open society against the forces of monolithic despotism. For what it's worth, and in honor of those who were wounded, killed or maimed in Monday's despicable attack, here is an old post from this blog about the marathon and what it means dating back to August 2007:

Of all endurance events, the marathon is special to El Cabrero. Sacred even.

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.

According to Herodotus, Pheidippides was a professional runner who covered the distance between Athens and Sparta (around 150 miles) in two days in an effort to urge the Spartans to resist the invaders. Along the way, he had an encounter with the god Pan, who pledged friendship to the Athenians.

The Spartans were sympathetic, but for religious reasons could not send an army until the moon was full. So he had to slog back.

A much later legend has it that after the Athenians defeated the numerically superior Persian force, Pheidippides ran the 25+ miles back to Athens to deliver the news. As the story goes, he said something like, "Rejoice, we conquer" and fell dead.

(This is what happens when you overdo it.)

This story 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,
Till in he broke: "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine thro' clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died--the bliss!"

Whether it happened or not, it's a good story. And the consequences of the eventual Greek triumph were really great. It permitted the full flowering of Greek science, art, literature, philosophy and democracy. They had plenty of shortcomings--but they also helped to give us the tools with which to criticize them.

When the great tragedian Aeschylus died, his grave marker said nothing about all the prizes he won for drama. Instead, it simply said

"Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian, who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela; of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak, or the long-haired Persian who knows it well."

It was a big deal. No wonder that when the Olympic games were revived in 1896 they included a long run of 40 K (24.8) miles. Now the distance is 26.2.

Running a marathon is kind of a big deal too. Running for more than 25 miles isn't normal. Aside from the obvious, the body tends to run out of readily available fuel after about 20 miles. This is known among marathoners as "hitting the wall." Basically, you just have to gut it through the rest.

Training for one isn't as hard as it might seem. You don't need to run 100 or more miles a week. Three days of hard training, with an easy day between, are enough. One day should be a long run, culminating in one of at least 20 miles around 2 weeks before the race. Another day should include tempo runs, which start slow but include several faster segments.

The day that REALLY builds character is interval training, which often consists of a mile or two warmup followed by repeated hard 800 meter intervals with a brief jog between each. Six, eight, ten, twelve, whatever, striving to finish each in the same time. Pushing yourself over and over. I love it. I hate it. It hurts. It's awesome, even if your interval is a whole lot slower than anyone else's.

Then comes the race. I've done three. One good, one bad, and one ugly. The worst was when my knee blew out halfway through and I had to limp the last 13 miles.

(Note: the line between endurance and idiocy is fine and El Cabrero is not the best judge of where it starts and stops. With my corazon in the shape it's in, I may not have another one in me.)

But here's my best advice: run it one mile at a time and don't worry about who passes you or who you pass.

In the long run, we run against ourselves.

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