February 11, 2010

Emulating Pheidippides

It’s 490 B.C. The story goes that having run 150 miles in two days, Pheidippides ran back from Marathon to Athens (over a distance uncannily similar to a modern Marathon race) to announce the Greek victory over Persia, at which point his heart called it a day and Pheidippides died on the spot. It’s hard to believe this has become a popular feat to emulate, but then I figure most people who attempt it do not reckon on it being their last act. And probably nobody does the 150 mile run in the two days prior to a race.

It has long been my intention to run a marathon. I watched the various degrees of insanity in the London marathon every year when I was growing up, and always vicariously felt the sense of achievement when the amateurs with ‘respectable times’ were finishing. I don’t much see the point in being a professional runner – I can’t access that psychology – and I’ve no desire to put on a monkey suit and schlep about in public like an idiot. I respect those who do it for charity, although I suspect that for many this is an after thought. 26 miles is a long way. People aren’t generally given to putting themselves out too much unless they are somehow directly implicated in the cause. But the truth is that it’s pretty difficult to get a place in the London marathon without signing up with a charity. The fund-raising obligation is not small.

The primary mentality, therefore, is that which wonders if I can. It is not dissimilar to those climbers who are plagued by the mountains simply being there. All kinds of qualities are at stake, but they can be boiled down to two: physical fitness and mental toughness. In an age of obesity and apathy, to be athletic and focussed sets one apart. There is, in addition, the not inconsiderable sense of achievement inherent in completing such a venture. Fortitude, self-reliance, endurance. How many know, for certain, that they possess these qualities? When the dial says empty, can you keep going?

I will be running the Montreal marathon this September. I promise not to bore you all with a training diary. I am not, after all, doing it for anyone else.*

*But I might raise some cash all the same, since people seem determined to give it.


  1. My, my, what a meritorious undertaking. I much prefer short bursts of vigorous activity.


  2. Doctor,

    reading your title, I thought of the famous Pheidippides and could not understand why anyone would want to imitate him.
    Then I read your historical note, remembered my Herodotus, and wondered how on earth do you mean you will do something memorable for your country, given the state of things.
    Then I read on and thought: perhaps in this obese world you have not noticed all the gym jocks, being occupied doing things only for yourself.
    I am forced, however, to conclude that you really were referring, in a sly way, to the very famous Pheidippides one reads about in Aristophanes.

  3. It is not the first time I have been accused of having my head in the Clouds. I leave interpretations to my readers.

    P.S. I make a conscious effort not to notice the gym jocks.

  4. Dear Sir,

    I applaud your determination and reasoning; moreover, I agree with your comment on being physically fit in today's corpulent society. Must you run 26 miles to know your mental and physical capacity to overcome the unachievable? I prefer to keep fit through fierce interval training. Bonne chance!


  5. My dear BTG,
    Thank you for your applause. Really, encouragement is invaluable. The marathon has become a great mountain in my mind, and it is forever and annoyingly there. I'm afraid I must conquer it.

  6. Good luck to you. I have completed ten marathons in the past five years, running them at first in the vain hope of impressing someone. She remained resolutely unimpressed, but I discovered that the distance is, as you say, its own reward.

  7. A question, by the way: how do you resolve the vexing question of what to wear while running?

  8. You are an inspiration, running all that way in such a short spell. You pose an excellent question, to which I have no good answer at present, but I do have an instinctive idea about what althetic gear is just plain wrong. I am trying at the moment to combine maximum comfort with minimal shame, for I do not wish to frighten anyone. I'll think on this a bit, and maybe offer some more fulsome thoughts as my training regime progresses.

  9. As a high-performance Chinese martial arts and boxing coach (my teacher is Jet Li's former teammate and childhood friend) I often run into the same issues discussed here. I spend my days in at least a made-to-measure two piece suit, usually three or an odd-vest (I'm a wine-broker in real life). The easiest compromise I've found in gym wear is shorts or track pants and a humble, none-too-tight t-shirt, with track jacket on cooler days. All should be white or cool tones- nothing bright or overly logo-ed. Provided you arrive to the gym properly attired in bespoke clothing, and depart (showered) in the same way with your dirty gym clothes tucked away in a bag, I think dignity remains intact. I've yet to find a tailor willing to work with cotton/nylon fabrics for bespoke gym wear, at least in a reasonable price range.

  10. Thank you James. It's encouraging to discover that my dignity is not at risk. If ever you do find such a tailor, by the way, please let us know!

  11. I don't doubt, you can do it.
    Now there.
    Kick back and enjoy a few of those gin and tonics with TMT. You've earned them, just thinking about it.

  12. Thank you Laurent, but what has happened to TMT? Not seen her in the ether in an age.


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