It is a badge of honour, and it traces back centuries. It confirms that, in completing a particular, grueling long distance run, one must be brave and dedicated, mentally and physically tough.
Such is certainly the case for Pheidippides, a professional “running courier” of sorts. Legend has it, in 490 BC, he races an exhausting 25 miles, first to a battlefield near Marathon and then back to his home city of Athens. Unfortunately, on announcing the Greek victory over the invading Persians, he promptly drops dead from exhaustion.
Now, not everyone can be an Athenian herald, and, given the circumstances of Pheidippides’ demise, likely would not want to be. Still, the marathon, an Olympic running competition since 1896, has, over the years, also become a bucket list event for untold millions of people world-wide.
The reasons why are legion. To travel, to meet new people, to inspire, to achieve a goal, to improve fitness, to raise $$ for charity. For a sense of accomplishment. And who knows - maybe even for guilt free massages?
Regardless, while my sister goes on to complete seven marathons, all in impressive style, I prove to be a total failure. Selfishly, I want a marathon on my CV. And so, every year when in college, in peak fitness at the end of the varsity basketball season, I aim to then train further, in order to negotiate the required 26 miles, 385 yards.
Alas, much like an ambitious climber who fails to prepare properly for altitude and then struggles to get beyond base camp, I invariably push the envelope and so almost immediately am sidelined by annoying muscle and tendon strains. Certainly, “hitting the wall”, perhaps a rite of passage and apparently an incapacitating experience, never becomes an issue for me. As this phenomenon can only occur when the body, running out of carbohydrates and glycogen, starts burning fat and using more oxygen.
Fortunately, others are more determined, gallant, and resourceful. Driven by a noble cause. Take Dick Hoyt for example.
Hoyt, at the time a Lieutenant Colonel in the American Air National Guard, comes late to running, at the age of 36. This decision, in 1977, hinges on the wishes of his severely handicapped 15 year old son Rick, diagnosed at birth as a spastic paraplegic with cerebral palsy.
Given little hope by doctors to lead a normal life, Rick nonetheless asks to take part in a race to benefit a high school lacrosse player who himself has been paralyzed.
After this initial five mile event, Rick rejoices. "Dad, when I’m running, it feels like I’m not handicapped." And so, as an accommodation, Dick ups his training, working out with bags of cement loaded in the wheelchair when his son is at school.
Team Hoyt is born.
Over the next 40 years, the Hoyts take part in more than 1100 endurance events, a simply staggering feat. This includes 72 marathons, 32 of them over the Boston course with its infamous Heartbreak Hill.
In 1992, the pair run and bike from coast to coast across the USA, some 3700 miles in 45 days.
In addition, the team further manages six Iron Man triathlons. With an inflatable boat attached to a bungee pulled by Dick, a bike with a seat on the handlebars for Rick, and a custom-made jogger for Rick to sit in, they redefine what is possible.
I marvel at these achievements. They are simply stunning. For me, to be struck down in a marathon quest, by nothing more than an achy achilles and calf, is humbling and downright embarrassing by comparison.
Sadly, this week brings news that, at the age of 80, Dick Hoyt passed away in his sleep. Tributes, from athletes, sport franchises, journalists and government leaders around the world, pour in for this most remarkable man. The Boston Athletic Association quite rightly calls him “one of a kind”, an icon.
As I am sure would be the case with countless others, what I would give to see Team Hoyt in action one last time, competing in another distance challenge. Respected and renowned, relentlessly chasing down another badge. To note the mettle, the resilience, the sheer perseverance. To capture, up close, both a triumph of the human spirit and a father’s unceasing love for his son.
Now finally at rest, may Dick take solace in the words of Robert Browning, found in a famous poem, appropriately titled Pheidippides. May he too “fling down his shield, run like fire once more. With the joy in his blood bursting his heart. The bliss.”
Marathon Man. RIP.