Friday, July 22, 2011

Endurance Sports: A brief, opinionated, history.

A long time ago people walked everywhere. Whole tribes walked across continents. They carried everything or used dogs to haul things before they domesticated the horse. Then we moved into villages and stayed in one place and started farming and sort of got lazy. Not everyone did though. People were still used as messengers often running to carry news from village to village over long distances. (People who carry messages today are still often referred to as "runners") People walked to the next town for market or went off to war on foot. People liked sports even back then and the ancient Greeks had games but no one ran the marathon. The longest race then was about three miles. The marathon as a race didn't exist.
     Pheidippides supposedly ran from Marathon to Athens with news of a Greek victory and died after delivering the news....a distance of about 26 miles. Baloney. He likely ran from Athens to Sparta to request help to fight of the Persians. (The Spartans said "NO!") Then he ran back and didn't die. He was a messenger and used to that kind of thing. Todays 240 Km Spartathalon race in Greece remembers the event.  The "Dead Pheidippides" story was started in the 19th century when promoters were trying to get the marathon into the Olympic Games. It almost didn't happen. People still felt that you would die if you ran the race. Remember, women weren't allowed to run the marathon in the Olympics until the 1980's. Men. In fact most races at that distance still had a four hour cut off until the early 80's. No medal. No t-shirt. Maybe an aid station. If you couldn't run the distance in 4 hours, you had no business being there. We're in the Third Running Boom since 1970. This one is a lot less competitive. My first Marathon was in just under 4 hours. Now I don't worry about time because There is usually a 6 or 7 hour cut off. The glamour is off. It's easy now. Ultra Marathons are hip. I wish they weren't but at least they are hard and they usually involve some deep digging.
       In ancient Egypt running was a military skill and soldiers there regularly ran distances that today would be about 100Km (61 Miles). The oldest know running race that is still held is the 3 mile run held in Carnwath, Lanarkshire, UK. It's 503 years old and run to determine the fastest person in the village. The winner gets red socks. The Boston Marathon is the oldest Marathon in the world (1897) only because it didn't have to shut down for two world wars. The Olympic Marathon started in 1896 but that is of course every four years.
    Walking events in the 1800's were the biggest money making spectator sports in the world. Men, mostly, would walk long distances, often on indoor tracks. Edward Payson Weston is the name you need to know here. He walked many "Pedestrian Events". He walked, in 1874, 500 miles in 6 days in front of a crowed of 6,000 spectators. He walked 100 miles in 22 hours another time. He was also the first person to walk across the United States in 1909 in 121 days. (No, Dean Karnazes was not the first person to walk or run across the country. 250 people have crossed the US on foot and Dean is about 246)
If you think walking isn't an endurance sport go for a walk tomorrow morning. Keep walking and arrive back home the day after and let me know how you feel. While were on that subject Earl Shaffer was the first person to walk the whole Appalachian Trail in 1948.  People have run it in a few months. I know someone who has walked it in 3 months, but he's wrapped pretty tight. People cross the country all the time on foot on the AT the Pacific Crest Trail or the Divide.  There is still some argument as to whether Eric Ryback did all three when he was 17 and 18 years old back in the 70's.
    The bicycle was developed early in the 19th century and it didn't have pedals. You pushed it with your feet. As soon as people got them, they started racing them. The first recognized race was in 1887.   They started riding them REALLY far! Thomas Stevens (That's him above...nice moustache) rode around the world in 1884-1886 on a Penny- Farthing ( a high wheeler). This also made him the first person to ride across the U.S. but he had to walk about one third of it since in some places there were no roads. Hundreds of folks ride across the U.S. yearly, some of them in 9 days in the Race Across America (RAAM) They don't sleep a lot. Six Day bike races are still popular in Europe and usually involve lots of beer drinking by the thousands of spectators that show up.  The Tour de France is the oldest bicycle stage race in the world. It started in 1903. Except for a few years during the world wars it has gone on. Lance only won 7 of them. While he may be the greatest Tour de France rider of all time he is not the greatest bicycle racer of all time. That's probably Eddie Merckx. Maybe it was Thomas Stevens. The hardest bike race in the world right now is probably the Divide Tour that runs down the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico. It's tough because it's...self supported. You carry all your stuff. No team car. No aid station. No one to pick you up if you fall off except yourself. I love that.
    Endurance Swimming is experiencing a re-birth now that "marathon" or open water swimming is in the Olympics. Really though folks have have been swimming far for a long time...English Channel, around Manhattan Island, The Channel Islands in California. The pool record is 100k in 24 hours.
    Triathlon has been around since the 70's but Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 bike, marathon) started in 1978.  The rest is marketing history.
Why am I writing about this? Because I want to remind folks that none of what we do now as endurance athletes is new. While it may be new to you it's all been done. Why is it amazing to so many people that they are able to do long races? Why are people around us amazed when you run a local 5k? It's because we have lost touch with who we are as human beings. Our bodies are designed and able to cover long distances over time and go fast when necessary. Only 100 years separate us from a 15 mile walk to market and then back. A long run after a lost cow. A walk from Ohio to Virginia to fight for a good cause. We've put on 100 pounds and think it's a good look.
You're not weird because you run or bike or walk far or want to do Ironman or even a 3 miler. You're just being the way people were before the modern age. You're just being who you were born to be.