Sunday, March 27, 2011

They Tread the Flowers That Bloom in May

April looms and running season is upon us again. Running always has been a sport, and, as a popular organized pastime, it is older than we usually remember. The Boston Marathon has been an April tradition since 1897. I won’t be entering it. Nor will I be entering any of the many 5k and 10k events in the towns near where I live. Hey, if a black bear charges me (one turns up in my back yard on rare occasion) I’ll run, but probably not for 10k, and certainly not for a marathon distance.

In my view, the original marathon runners, the Athenian army in 490 BC, had a reasonable excuse; they had to hurry over the 26 mile distance (in full armor) from Marathon to Athens before the Persian fleet could attack the undefended city. (This event gets confused in some accounts with the 150 mile run by the messenger Pheidippedes from Athens to Sparta mentioned by Herodotus and by the same messenger’s run from Marathon to Athens mentioned by Plutarch.) Doing the same distance just for the heck of it strikes me as odd, but to each his or her own. “Vertical marathons,” which are races up the stairs of skyscrapers, don’t entice me either. I once dated a girl who lived in a 5th floor walk-up in Chelsea, and that was quite enough. The stairs never actually deterred me from visiting her, but I admit they caused me to think about it. All this doesn’t mean I don’t applaud runners as they pass by, for I do; it makes me happy not to be one of them.

Perhaps the most ambitious organized long distance race to date was the so-called Bunion Derby in 1928: 3400 miles (5472k) from Los Angeles to New York. It was promoted by showman C.C. Pyle and sponsored by Dr. Scholl, the bunion pad guy. As far as I know, there are no plans to duplicate it. The first prize was $25,000 (about $325,000 in today’s dollars). There were 421 entrants, each paying a (rather stiff) $100 entry fee. On the very first day, 222 runners dropped out from heat exhaustion in Death Valley. Another runner was taken out by a hit-and-run driver. 55 runners made it as far as Ohio, but they were spread out over such a distance by then that scarcely anyone noticed them as one by one they passed through towns. After the first day or two, the press largely ignored the whole race, as did the public. The runners’ route met the Hudson River at Weehawken; from there each runner took the ferry to the 42nd Street Pier in Manhattan and then ran the final stretch to Madison Square Garden. Only 4000 people bought seats to greet the winner (the old MSG had 18,000 seats). Andy Payne, a 19-year-old Cherokee Oklahoman, won with a time of 573 hours 4 minutes and 23 seconds. He stood in the arena long enough to receive his prize money and then fell unconscious. He recovered. John Salo, a shipfitter from Passaic, NJ, came in second nearly a day behind Andy. He collected $10,000. C.C. Pyle, thinking of all the money he lost on this media flop, said of the runners, “not one of them suffered more than I did.”

Maybe C.C. was just ahead of his time. Would a Bunion Derby work in 2011? I think it might. Heck, for a $325,000 purse I’d contemplate buying some running shoes myself. Only contemplate, mind you.


  1. You know I'd always heard the marathon was based over the distance run from Marathon to Athens by the messenger to deliver the news of victory. Heck, when we were in Greece, I swear that is the story they told us. Where are you getting your facts Richard? ;)

  2. LOL. Plutarch wrote 600 years after the event while Herodotus spoke with actual veterans of the battle, so I incline toward Herodotus, who said Pheidippides ran to Sparta. However, the stories are not mutually exclusive. He might have run to Athens too, with the army following behind.