I went to Athens having finished four marathons (including one at the end of the Ironman) and having a tremendous respect for this distance, and the incredible emotions that it evokes. Part of what continues to draw me to this magical distance is the strange and surreal high that comes about with the decision to persevere through intense fatigue and impossible doubt. I have made a lot of progress this fall on my book, considering what we learn about ourselves and our lives through the races, considering how I have grown through my experience of becoming an "athlete." I set out on this transatlantic journey to a place so rich with history - the birthplace of democracy, for crying out loud! - that I figured there simply would be no way around being overwhelmed with some kind of transcendent connection with the history of the place. I thought that during the run, I would empathize with Pheippides, or somehow be transported to his historical setting and experience.
But it wasn't quite like that. What I found wasn't myself living in the legend of 490 B.C., it was something more relevant - something even more timeless.
We took a bus tour of the course from the Expo Saturday, and arrived at the stadium in Marathon just as a ceremony was wrapping up, with young men and women sharply dressed in their country's military best, meeting each other before competing in an international championship as part of Sunday's marathon. To the side of the stadium, the Olympic flame was burning, and as we stood next to it to take photos, a young man asked if we could take his photo with the flame. Of course we did; he asked us where we were from, seemed to be thrilled to be talking to Americans, then told us with a huge smile he was from Germany and eager to run in tomorrow's championship. I couldn't help but think in the quiet of the bus trip back that barely two generations ago, he and I might have tried to kill each other on a battlefield, but this weekend we had the privilege of sharing a starting and finish line, each doing battle with none other than himself, with each other's support rather than fear and hatred.
On race morning, I was delighted, but to be honest not surprised, to come across probably 20 purple shirts. Individuals like me - alumni sporting our colors in dedication to the Team - and groups as well, like "Grease Lightning" from Texas, raising money and training together for this big race. As a charity runner, I often hear various thanks along the way, but to hear them standing here, in Marathon, made me very proud. Proud to recognize that if a person's first language is American English, they see purple and shout "Go Team!" Proud to realize that the sport of modern marathoning would not be what it is without the empowering powerhouse of Team in Training, accepting anybody who wants to dream about a finish line and watching them earn a medal around their neck. Proud to know that we fund research that lets someone who once heard their doctor say "I'm sorry, you have cancer", later go to Athens and run in the footsteps of Pheippides, both of whom can proclaim "we have won" 42.2k later, but only one of whom dies at the end of the story.
And as 12,500 runners assembled and met each other in the shadow of the Olympic flame and a long row of flags, the race organizers welcomed us. The president of the race organization said "The Marathon symbolizes, not only for the humanity but also for hundreds of marathon runners from all over the globe, the values of peace, the fellowship of nations, the importance of human feats and the need of people for great, truthful, and good ideals, this is applied not only in their athletic activities but also in their everyday lives." The Mayor of Athens concurred that the Marathon "is a tribute to the human will, a race-challenge for the human soul, a race that goes beyond the limits of a simple sport event." And with a gunshot that contained no bullet, 12,500 runners from around the world set out with a common and peaceful goal.
I'll tell you what: that's the legend of Marathon. Two and a half millenia have no bearing on the timeless truths that the marathon stands testament to: the resilience of the human spirit. The inability of fear and worldly struggles to get in the way of the great achievements that dreamers turn into reality through their commitments. On top of everything the marathon means to the individuals who run it, it also creates a bond among them, which on this day included all the world, and reminded me again and again that the human spirit itself is not bounded by black lines on a globe, but by the blue line on the road. If Pheippides was indeed just a legend, he was certainly actualized on this day in the hearts of the runners who came to know him over his famous route. But instead of honing the implements of war, we strengthened the elegant machine of the human body and the delicate bonds between the world's people that have far more in common that some may want to believe. Especially on this day, when the raw power of the marathon challenge unites us.
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness", said Mark Twain. So if world peace is indeed our dream, then our challenge is to go out into the world, understand the people who inhabit its other corners, and be peaceful.