Marathons of Memory, Marathons of Life

Editorial note: Robinson’s tribute below is a companion piece to his essay “Filling the Unforgiving Minute: The Literature of Running,” which appears in the March 2012 print edition of WLT.

Running is alone among sports in so often carrying meanings greater than itself. Worldwide examples spanning more than a century demonstrate races symbolizing recovery:

  • The first marathon was included in the 1896 Olympic Games to connect the festival with ancient history, and as a symbol of Greece’s emergence from centuries of oppression.
  • San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers race was established in 1912 to help the battered city regain its morale after the 1906 earthquake.
  • South Africa’s Comrades’ Marathon (56 miles/89 kilometers) began in 1921 as an active tribute by World War I veterans to their many comrades who had fallen.
  • In 1924 the Czechoslovak town of Košice (now in Slovakia) founded the International Peace Marathon to symbolize Europe’s emergence from the nightmare of World War I.
  • The 1948 Olympic Games in London fulfilled the same purpose, asserting Britain’s survival and the world’s transition from war to peace.           
  • In 1946 Stylianos Kyriakides came from war-ravaged Greece to run the Boston Marathon, carrying a message of thanks for America’s support for his country in World War II, and appealing for help to enable Greece to survive the postwar famine. His against-all-odds victory was one of the most emotional results in the history of running.
  • A year later, the symbolic script repeated itself when Korea’s Yun Bok Suh, sponsored by American servicemen based in Korea, won Boston and made the world aware of the prolonged sufferings of his country.
  • When the Berlin Marathon went for the first time through both sides of the formerly partitioned city in 1990, it took the title “Run Free.” All of us who ran through the Brandenburg Gate that day festively celebrated the end of the Soviet regime, and Germany’s freedom from that divisive occupation. Western runners contributed to a fund that enabled less affluent residents of Eastern Europe to take part.
  • In 1998 the area around Ypres, in Belgium, once a World War I quagmire of horror, founded its Flanders Fields Marathon of Peace, in memory of the millions who died in the trenches and still lie in the vast cemeteries that the course passes.

All these races have symbolized recovery from disaster and death. All have made running a living metaphor: for coming to terms with loss, for renewal, for reaffirming life. That was unforgettably true yet again in 2001 when the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., and the New York City Marathon were defiantly run in those grieving cities only a few weeks after the trauma of the September 11 terrorist attacks. 

It is true too of the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. The race was founded in 2000 as an annual commemoration of the victims of the 1995 domestic terrorist bombing of the federal government building. It explicitly affirms compassion and regeneration. “It is about life,” says the event’s mission statement. The 168 banners on the course enable the runners to mark and commemorate each person that was lost. At the same time, the runners’ heroic endeavor gives moving proof that life continues.

This connection between running and life is age-old, much older than any marathon. As far back as our knowledge goes, running was a way of affirming life, sometimes in the face of death. The creation ceremonies of the Native Americans often included running, sometimes over great distances and especially significant land. Village sports meets in Europe, including footraces for men and women, were held in spring, to welcome the rebirth of nature. For the Bronze Age Mycenaeans (who came before the ancient Greeks), competitive racing was part of their funeral rituals—life affirmed against death, again. The Greeks continued to hold such races to honor the memory of dead heroes. Literature’s earliest written account of a running race comes in the funeral games that celebrated the slain Patroclus in Homer’s poem The Iliad.             

Like that army at the gates of Troy, we still put on track meets to commemorate our lost heroes, in our case runners like Emil Zatopek (in Melbourne) and Steve Prefontaine (in Eugene, Oregon). In road races, especially marathons, thousands today run in private commemoration of someone they have lost. Sometimes running with the name or picture on their shirt, they carry the loved one along the course, and by that effort assert their continuing life. One friend carried some of his mother’s ashes in the 2010 Boston Marathon (“so that she finally got to run Boston herself,” he said). Another ran with a medal that had belonged to the great Ted Corbitt. Another gave me consolation by dedicating a marathon to my recently deceased brother. Over and over, runners say, “I'm running for—.” 

None of this is strange or inappropriate. In our culture, we don’t strip off and hold races at funerals, as the Greeks did. But we affirm life at funerals in similar ways—by music, by singing, by reading poems or the Bible. Sometimes by running. On two occasions before the funerals of runners, I have joined in a run with others to commemorate our dead friend. We all felt that the run was at least as important and as appropriate as the later service. It was a shared ritual that put us close to his spirit.

In March 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand, a friend and I went for a long, fiercely competitive bike ride the morning of the funeral of a close friend—like us, a former elite runner who had turned to cycling—who had been tragically killed in the terrible Christchurch earthquake of February 22, 2011. It was our equivalent of the run we would like to dedicate to him, if we were a few years younger.    

Why does running carry these extra meanings? Why do we mourn a loved one by running in their memory when it would not feel helpful to play baseball or tennis for them? I can only speculate. Every runner has private reasons. In part it may come from the elemental simplicity of running itself, its purity as a basic movement that requires no equipment, facilities, or rules of play. We could run naked on dirt. That’s how the Greeks did it. They believed, as the Bible says, that the body is the temple of the spirit. It may be because deep within us lies the memory that running is necessary to survival, so in the most basic way running is about life. Or it may be because long-distance running has that well-known endorphin effect, the runner’s high that can create an almost transcendent state. That’s why in Japan and Tibet there are running monks, whose worship is by all-day jogging. Running has a spiritual dimension.

So the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon adds something of ancient and profound value to the American running calendar. It has a special place in the running movement that we all belong to. For its host city, the race every year helps to heal the wounds that were so needlessly inflicted. For visiting runners, it affords the chance to share actively in a tribute, and expunge the shock that we all felt in 1995. It is a public celebration of life, in motion, along the very streets. Every step by every runner is an affirmation that the people who died are remembered and valued—and that they live on.

Wellington, New Zealand

Roger Robinson (www.roger-robinson.com) is emeritus professor of English at Victoria University, New Zealand, and senior writer for Running Times. He set masters records at the Boston and New York marathons. His books include Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, Running in Literature, and the recently republished Heroes and Sparrows: A Celebration of Running.


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