As we enter Boston Marathon week 2018, let us remember that people once used to believe that running a marathon wasn’t just a challenge, but a risk.

Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966, had a father who thought the event was downright dangerous and was angry at his daughter for even thinking about running it – “he thought I was mentally ill, but he didn’t know I had been training.”

Bobbi Gibb, Boston Marathon 1966

When Gibb hid in the bushes near the start line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts in April 1966 (because women weren’t allowed to run the marathon back then), her sole aim was to run the distance because that is what she had trained to do. And since she had already run as far as 30 miles on training, it never dawned on her that the marathon was beyond her capability. Only male officials were of that opinion. 52 years later women’s competitions in major Marathons stand on par, and at times higher, than the men’s race. That is certainly the case in these next two weeks in Boston and London.

But let’s also recall that it wasn’t all that long ago when there was a school of thought that believed that trying to run the mile in under four minutes was as physically dangerous as trying to break the sound barrier in flight, another thought-to-be-impossible endeavor. That frisson of danger was a big part of why people were intrigued by long distance racing. Tragedy, after all, could happen, and you could be witness to it.

Dorando Pietri at the finish of the 1908 Olympic marathon

In the 1908 London Olympic Marathon, Italian Dorando Pietri faltered badly in the final stages and had to be assisted across the finish line, which got him disqualified and replaced by America’s Johnny Hayes as gold medalist.  Recall, too, the 1954 British Commonwealth Games Marathon in Victoria, B.C., Canada during which England’s Jim Peters entered a packed Empire Stadium with a huge lead only to collapse onto the track 220 yards from the tape, before struggling like a drunken sailor at the end of a three-day pass.

There was a perverse, car-crash appeal to such danger.  That “playing at the edge” was the mindset for what a long, hard running effort might bring about.  After all, the entire mythology of the event was based on the Greek messenger Pheidippides running himself into the grave after galloping 40 kilometers from the town of Marathon to the city of Athens to bring word of victory in a battle against an invading Persian force in 492 B.C.

With that as a first result, it took another 2400 years before somebody else decided to try the darn thing again. But once it got going, and they stripped away that ‘maybe you’re going to die doing it’ element, the event boomed in popularity while giving otherwise sedentary people a healthy goal and lifestyle purpose.

That’s the thing about a consensus belief, it’s readily accepted until the moment it’s not. Such is the scientific method and the manner of progress. Observation and experimentation lead to the formulation and testing of hypotheses and thus does evidence accumulate and knowledge expand. Of course, there are always science deniers, the proudly lunkheadish, but people generally accept what the data indicates.

Today, due to improved coaching, better nutrition, and generations of experience, most of the danger once linked to long-distance running has been eliminated, especially for the top trained athletes. In fact, for the zoom-zoom types, it doesn’t even register a blip on their radar. It’s just a long speed race as the current sub-two-hour marathon projects illustrate.

As for the back of the pack, it’s been much the same.  With more people “doing marathons” as opposed to “racing marathons”,  the dangers that still lurk come mostly in the form of undiagnosed genetic abnormalities that are uncovered on race day.

At the same time, the challenge inherent in preparing to cover such a long length of road, regardless the speed, continues to be addictive and rewarding.  The danger, some might therefore suggest, lies not in taking on such a daunting test, but in not embracing some form of physical challenge as a key ingredient in forming a healthy physical and psychological life profile. Onward to Hopkinton!


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