The Marathon Shirt

Everything after 17 miles, I knew, would be unknown territory, for that’s as far as I had run at one time; and now I had been in the realm of the unknown for almost three miles. Working to finish my first marathon, I kept remembering another day, the year before, when I had realized I could actually run this race. My temperature had been hovering for several days around 104. The malady I had felt like the flu, and what little of the world I could see out my window looked oddly yellow. Then, like an unexpected slap from a banner of hope, the thought came to me: I hadn’t been planning to, but I knew I really could run a marathon. In several ways I’d known that since I was a kid, but I’d never taken the dream seriously till now.

Although I’d been running regularly, up to that point I had only run half the long distance–and that just once, the year before. I was ready now to double the span, and except for my crazed respiratory setback, I was in good shape. And I had been since childhood, except for two periods: a hemorrhaging ulcer at 19 that required nine transfusions, then seven years later two bouts of surgery for thyroid cancer. I’d come back before, and I was ready to do it again.

Even from my sickbed, the world seemed exciting. Old images returned: thoughts of people like Paavo Nurmi and Emil Zatopek, distance runners I’d read about as a child. All kinds of athletes and adventurers had intrigued me then, and I made scrapbooks to celebrate them. I didn’t care if they were contemporary or ancient, athletic or intellectual, outlaws or heroes of high character; and if I didn’t find clippings, I made my own illustrations in pencil, Crayola, or paint. Chubby and slow, I knew even back then that I could run forever. I had a secret, too: I just hadn’t tested it yet. The trick was simply not to give up when I got tired. All I had to do was keep going for one more moment, then when that moment passed, go on for another, then another one after that. Anyone, after all, could hang on for one more moment.

But now mile 20 was approaching, and things had quit being fun a long time back, in spite of the fact that, thankfully, I had passed through a stage I call the absurdity factor. It kicked in around mile 14, when I began being plagued by a terrible feeling of ridiculousness. What I was trying to do did not seem noble or ambitious, just foolish. At mile 17, however, the sensation passed when I reminded myself that I had now moved into the realm of single digits: not much more than nine miles left. Tricks of the mind like that made me feel better, but the ordeal was nowhere near over. A two-block long, doglegging steep hill was beating up on me, and I knew I needed to attack it back, so I speeded up and that helped.

Later, when I told some friends that the sudden rise had surprised me, they acted aghast: “Didn’t you read the topographical route map in the paper?” one of them asked.

“No,” I said, “I knew I wouldn’t get lost.”

“We’re not talking about getting lost,” Carol told me. “We’re talking about your race plan, your plans for your splits. Lord, I write my projected times on my palm.”

“Oh, I wasn’t concerned about anything like that,” I said. “I’d just planned on doing what the course had to offer.”

Chugging up the hill, I really was going faster, though maybe, I thought, that’s just illusion. I still didn’t know how long I could sustain the effort. I kept vacillating between excitement and misery. My attention lurching back into childhood, I began chanting instruction from a short work of moral philosophy I’d always liked: “I think I can, I think I can,” I mumbled, quoting from The Little Engine That Could. A man in middle age in my first marathon, I was now at the top of the hill, and the view ahead was clear. The only trouble was, the grade kept rising, but not as rudely as it had been.

Just a bit more than six miles to go, I thought, and a wonderful feeling of light-leggedness swept through me. Victory–finishing–was going to be mine. Choking up at the power of what completing this ordeal meant, I began composing letters to friends, to tell them all about the great day. This effort, to me, was even civilizational in scope. I was at home now with a set of old friends, the ancient Greeks. But the thrill of that quickly disappeared. I had begun celebrating too early. There was still a lot of work to do. Feet and hipjoints flaming, my ankles felt wobbly and weak, and my knees seemed wooden and brittle. Even my arms hurt, but others around me were suffering, too; a lot of them now were walking. Grimacing and crippled by leg cramps, some had even stopped.

Miserable or not, I was determined to maintain at least a sham of a run. Then blocks ahead of me, a runner caught my eye. I still don’t know why I noticed him. There were plenty others about and they were a lot closer to me than he was. Still, while parts of me laughed at the crazy notion, I kept wondering: Can I catch him?

“Hurry up,” I tyrannically told myself, but my legs refused to cooperate. I harassed them anyway, then decided to try tricking them. To hell with forthrightness, I thought, seeing myself jamming my half-open fist as far down as I could deep into my guts. I had to laugh, though. There wasn’t much down there to draw from, but quitting was no option. Besides, I really was getting closer to that shirt I’d noticed. There was a design on the back of it, too, but I was too far away to see what it was.

Before long, however, the image became clear: a line drawing of an ancient Greek warrior. Of course, I said, pleased. The Greeks had inspired this event. In 490 BCE a soldier had run considerably more than 22 miles from battlefield to Athens to tell his people that the day was saved. The Greeks had whipped the invading Persians–whipped them good, even routed their huge army on the glorious field at Marathon. Then immediately after delivering the news, the story said, the runner-messenger collapsed and died. No wonder, I thought. Fighting hand-to-hand all day was poor pre-run strategy. Then my sense of whimsy stopped, and one of my major points of reference vividly returned: The idea that, with varying degrees of awareness, all of us were celebrating Western civilization itself. The Greeks, in fact, had invented it; and if the Persians had won that day, Western civilization would have ended, and not long after its startlingly fast commencement.

So much had been on the line then: democracy, philosophy, art, orderly debate, and the synthesis of the religious, the aesthetic, and the athletic. Everything, in effect, had been at stake, and the Athenians seemed to have known that. Terribly outnumbered, they had won through courage and wit. Something, though, was written on that shirt ahead of me, and its message was going to be mine. Then I saw another detail: a Spartan helmet on the warrior’s head–the buzzed broom brush curving a line from crown to nape. There was a legend of letters above him and below him, and now I saw what it said: Phidippides Running Wear. Flushed with anger, I flew into a rage, my fury a lot more vivid now than fatigue had been.

Phidippides truly had been a great Athenian day-runner. Many have even identified him with the runner from Marathon, but he most likely wasn’t. We really have no idea who that runner was–the one who brought the good news to Athens. In the Persian Wars, however, Herodotus tells us that when the Athenians discovered the Persians were nearing their shores, Phidippides ran from Athens to Sparta for help–some 75 miles in one day, then the same distance back the next. The Spartans told him they were in the middle of a festival and couldn’t help yet, not for several more days till the full moon came again. Herodotus does not tell us what Phidippides said back to them, but I know what I was thinking: “You don’t put,” I said, a shout roaring through me, “a damn Spartan helmet on the head of a fine Athenian warrior. I’m gonna burn you off this road!”

And as I did, ghosts of old friends were with me. One of them was Aeschylus, the great tragedian who said that the only thing he wanted to be remembered for was that he had fought that day at Marathon. His brother Cynegirus had died there. In retreat now, the Persians were rushing back to their ships, and Cynegirus ran into the water after them. Leaping up, he grabbed the poop of a vessel to try to stop it from escaping, and one of the enemy lopped off his hand with a sword. Legs light and full of power again, I sped up, and as I whipped by the man, I sneered at his damned inaccurate T-shirt. No Spartan helmets were going to deck my friends’ heads.

I still had a good way to go, but that didn’t matter. I was ready to fly, and I did, the last half-mile even in a wide-open dead run. I felt great. Tears of joy and mystery flowed from me as, fist thrusting celebratively high and heart pounding wildly, I crossed the finish line. Sobs of breath heaved out and back in me. I was so deeply moved I couldn’t speak, and that wasn’t true for just the first marathon. The eight others following in the next several years turned out to be, in their own and similar ways, as strong as the first one.

But there had been more than glory in that mad dash home. There were also defiance of fear and presence of mind, a kind of wild clarity, for on that day in 490 BCE the Athenian leader Miltiades devised a new strategy. Vastly outnumbered by the Persian army of archers, the Athenians with their short swords lined up across the field of battle, and when a thick volley of arrows sailed skyward, Miltiades gave the order to charge, the Athenians ran straight ahead, and the cloud of arrows struck dirt well behind them. That happened several more times, and soon the battle was between sharp short swords and empty bows. That day, Herodotus tells us in The History (University of Chicago Press, 1987), the Greeks were the first “we know of to charge their enemy at a run and the first to face the sight of the Median dress and the men who wore it. For till then the Greeks were terrified even to hear the names of the Medes.” Then and now, no matter how oblique they seem, these stories are personal, and not just for me.

James Hoggard is a poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and Professor of English at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls. His most recent books are Medea In Taos & Other Poems and Rain In A Sunlit Sky.

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Published at 12:00 am CST