Running Through Newton Today

Two and half centuries ago, in 490 BC, the account goes, Phiddipides (var.), the fastest foot-courier of the day, ran from Marathon to Athens (25 miles) to tell the waiting Generals that they had won the battle against the invading Persians at the pass at Marathon. He had run from Marathon to Sparta and back in the two days before, (150 miles) on a mission to glean help from the Spartans who decided not to deploy immediately, but to wait for a full moon before sending help. And so, having run 175 miles in less than ½ a week, he rushed into Athens, delivered his message and dropped dead! There were no telegrams, phone calls, text messages, satellite images, AP wire stories, or Instagramming of dead Persians, foot-dragging Spartans, or jubilant Athenians.

There have certainly been some big changes to the 26 mile plus 385 yard run in 2506 years. Aside from the historical acknowledgement of the name of the race; a slight nod to Ancient Greece in Nike sneakers (since Nike…pronounced knee-kay’… is the Greek word for victory); and a laurel wreath for the winner, the race has little resemblance to its past communication function.

Phiddipides ran alone…no pasta the night before, no spectators lining his route and no ceremony to celebrate either his feat or his feet! He was probably driven by his estimation of the importance of transmitting the information he carried to waiting ears.

What are the runners thinking today as they pass through Newton, the longest leg of the race through all the traversed towns and cities? The mob surges from the start at Hopkinton, at 490 ft. elevation, and cascades mostly downhill until it reaches us at Newton Lower Falls at its 60 ft. elevation between Miles 16 and 17. Two-thirds of the race is complete at the entry to Newton. Two parts down, one to go. Easy, peasy? Don’t bet your Adidas on it!

Newton is a test in many ways. While a river of runners leaves Hopkinton, by the time the runners reach Newton they are independent water droplets, propelled individually forward.   An upslope from 60 to 230 ft., with increasingly rising challenges from Firehouse Hill to Heartbreak Hill, the four hills through Newton tear at their spirit, if not their flesh. What drives this ribbon of humanity to continue to course through Newton? What keeps the runners at any point along Comm. Ave., from fragmenting into dispirited, broken athletes whose wounds stop them from their goal?

With neither Godzilla behind them, nor the end of the rainbow ahead, I wonder what Newton means to them? It must certainly be the multiple hands of water-filled paper cups reaching kindly out to their parched throats. It must also be the unbroken cheers and cries of support that buttress their flagging energies and renew the possibility of their imagined success at the Pru. The Newton spectators clearly provide a safety trampoline-net for the runners’ high-wire dizziness. If they can just get out of Newton alive and still kicking, perhaps, just perhaps… the Mile 23 Marker ahead and the waters of the Chestnut Hill Reservoir will tease at their eyes… and they will have just run six of the longest miles ever measured!

Metaphorically, Newton is the home of those who have run hard and earned their own success. There is little resting on others’ laurels in this City. Few scions reside here and I have heard of no family compounds fencing out the unrelated. Most who live here are hard working professionals, plumbers, teachers, clergy, restauranteurs, electricians, consultants, law enforcers, health care providers, scientists, artists and social workers who have run the long distance race to get here with the time and devotion that rigorous education has cost, an education that is valued beyond all other attributes in the City and willingly, if not devotedly, supported. Few people have walked into Newton. Most have climbed the hills that run through its middle to get here. Do you believe Newton is the bastion of the privileged or   the Athens at the end of a difficult Marathon?

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Kathleen Kouril GrieserSallee LipshutzJohn KootLynne LeBlanc Recent comment authors
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Lynne LeBlanc

Well, I’m not at the Marathon yet thus my timely post. The Marathon is a wonderful time (and way) to consider Newton. I know so many who have worked hard to come to Newton and continue to work hard just to stay in Newton (my family included). A wonderful part of our fair City is the economic diversity we have. No one I know thinks we should ever be a bastion of privilege and, by extension, one that is exclusive. As a PTO representative through all my students’ years, I can attest to the social, economic, and ethnic diversity in all the schools they attended – from Horace Mann to Day and Newton North and to Newton as a place that is welcoming to all. The ancient poet Hesiod noted in his “Works and Days” (a sort of farmer’s almanac for the working class) that there are two kinds of strife: “…there was not one kind of Strife alone, but…two. As for the one, a man would praise her when he came to understand her; but the other is blameworthy: and they are wholly different in nature. For one fosters evil war and battle, being cruel: her no man loves; but perforce, through the will of the deathless gods, men pay harsh Strife her honour due. But the other is … far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens… Read more »

John Koot

What a marvelous post for Marathon Day, Sallee—first the fascinating historical account of the first Marathon, then an entertaining and informative analysis of the Boston Marathon and the important role Newton plays as a final testing ground for the runners! Poor Phidippides might have survived his run if only he had enjoyed some of the support Newton residents provide to contestants: copious hydration, orange slices, and first-rate medical care. As for living in Newton, yes, we are all privileged to live here, but no, we are not “a bastion of privilege.” Newton is a remarkably diverse place with respect to both population and housing (though some developers seem to be working as fast as they can to demolish anything resembling a starter home). There are always tradeoffs in anyone’s decision about where to establish a home, but I am hopeful that Newton can avoid becoming a place where the only housing choices are mansions or many-storied multi-families.

Kathleen Kouril Grieser

Sallee, I LOVE the way you think and the way you write. You asked, “Do you believe Newton is the bastion of the privileged or the Athens at the end of a difficult Marathon?”. I believe Newton is the Athens at the end of a difficult Marathon. There may be a few people here who inherited everything and have it swell, but most of us, I believe, have worked very hard to be able to make a home here. I’ve met many people here who have come from quite humble beginnings and never felt entitled to be here. Rather, they struggled to make their way here. I grew up being taught to admire the American Dream – the idea that each person should strive to do his or her best and make a better life for their children than they had had. Our history is filled with the stories of immigrants who lived in poverty, and their children who made it into blue collar jobs in the city, and their children who made it to the suburbs and middle-class office jobs, and their children who became upper-middle class professional doctors, lawyers and professors, etc. Every once in a while some bright light would start a great company, invent a brilliant widget or app, or become a star of sports or entertainment, and wealth would arrive. What’s wrong with that? Why is climbing the “ladder” of success no longer considered politically correct? Why is it wrong to accept that building family… Read more »