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?