Saturday, April 9, 2011

The King's appendage

While the cycling world is anxiously awaiting the verdict of tomorrow's Hell of the North, aka the Queen of the Classics, or -for those romantically inclined- Paris Roubaix, stateside, marathon fever is about to grip endurance racers with the upcoming 115th running of the Boston marathon. And so it is, when events of this magnitude are within reach, that historians go delving into the archives and cubbyholes to find tidbits of ancient lore that add luster and shine to these affairs.

The goal on Boylston Street

Roubaix velodrome

The marathoners love to go as far back as Ancient Greece, when a runner named Pheidippides or Philippides ran from the enclave of Marathon, where an epic battle had just taken place, to Athens, to tell the good citizens of that town that the Greeks had won. The runner, whomever he was, or whatever his name was, ran the entire distance, which, depending on how he choose to go, measured between 35 and 40 kilometers without stopping. Then as he reached the wise Athenians, and uttered his victorious Νενικήκαμεν, he collapsed and died. Hollywood could not have done better especially since the entire affair is more likely than not hearsay.

Contrary to popular belief the marathon was not a sporting event in Ancient Greece or at the Greek Olympics. The Greeks knew better than to run that distance in competition. Without helicopters, roving TV cameras, and constant internet updates it would have been boring as hell to watch.

The marathon is a modern invention, and like Paris Roubaix, it was invented by a Frenchman who was eager to find an event suitable for his newly proposed Olympic Games of the Modern Era. Nobody was really sure what distance to use, but 40 km seemed like a nice round and metric number with some historical justification.

When the marathon moved to London for the 1908 Olympics, the English thought it would be nice to add a little extra so the King could watch the start of the event from his palace balcony. And so it was that 2.195 kilometers was added to the race. The official distance then became 42,195 meters or 26 miles and 385 yrds (close enough to print bumper stickers that read 26.2).

But perhaps the Kings add-on would not have prevailed had it not been for the type of finish that later put Ironman on the map. In that famed 1908 Games, Italian Dorando Pietri entered the finishing lap at the Roubaix velodrome stadium, struggling to make it to the line. He was helped by officials who propped him up and carried him in, as American Johnny Hayes was bearing down on him. Pietri was later disqualified but the Queen was so taken by this incident that she gave Pietri a gold cup the next day. This made-for-TV moment, that preceded Julie Moss's eerily similar Hawaiian crawl in February of 1982, started a worldwide marathon fever. Julie had to settle for David Letterman as America has no queen.

The Hawaiian crawl

I am sure you will all be keeping your fingers crossed and hope that trains will run on time in Northern France.

Paris-Roubaix train incident

I also hope you will be rooting for Tommeke. Hopefully he won't have to crawl over the line to hold off the Swiss superman (of Italian descent) Cancellara.

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