Olympia: The Marathon

May 1, 2015

My Fellow Athletes,

Can we agree on one thing?  Frank Shorter started it all.

In 1972 at the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, Frank Shorter became the first American man to win the Gold Medal in the Olympic Marathon.  (The Marathon by definition is 40.2 kilometers or 26.2 miles.)

In 1984, Joan Benoit added her name to Olympic Legend when she became the first American woman to win the Gold Medal in the Olympic Marathon.  Actually she was the first woman ever to win Gold since the female Marathon event was first added to the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles that very year.  (Joan had already won the Boston Marathon in both 1979 and 1983.)

After Frank’s championship and surely after Joan’s extraordinary Olympic accomplishment, we Americans decided to emulate our two new heroes.  We donned our sweat suits and our Nike Waffle Trainers and Adidas County Striders, dutifully performed our stretching exercises, and headed out the door for our training run. 

All across America, from border to border and ocean to ocean, from before dawn until well after sunset, from Sunday to Saturday, on highways and byways, on city streets and country roads, along urban asphalt paths and forested dirt tracks, tens of thousands of us, perhaps millions of American women and men of all sizes, colors and ages, clogged the streets and impeded traffic, all of us dreaming of Gold and seeking our own personal glory.

Frank and Joan took home the Gold, but my personal hero was Bill Rogers.

Bill set the pace for marathon competition in the USA.  He didn’t win an Olympic medal yet he won the Boston Marathon four times and the New York City Marathon three times.

In fact, in 1978, at the New York City Marathon, Bill and I ran together.  Really.

The course of the New York Marathon covers all five Boroughs of the City. 

All of us 10,000 starters assemble in Staten Island at the entrance to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  (The number of finishers in 2014 was over 50,0000 runners.)  With a dozen deafening news helicopters buzzing overhead, we cross the bridge over New York Harbor and arrive in Brooklyn with its thousands of enthusiastic spectators.

We race through a variety of ethnic neighborhoods in Brooklyn and then cross the Pulaski Bridge over the Newtown Creek into Queens. 

After a short visit to Queens we jog a silent crossing over the 59th Street-Queensboro Bridge (now the Ed Koch Bridge) high above the East River into Manhattan where the crowds are screaming and the theme song from the movie “Rocky” is blasting from the loudspeakers.  (Believe me, it’s an unforgettable moment! An adrenalin rush of the first magnitude.)

Then we manage a long struggle up a boisterous First Avenue to the Willis Avenue Bridge over the Harlem River into the Bronx.

After another brief visit, this time to to curious Bronxites, we struggle across the Madison Avenue Bridge and back into Manhattan, and somehow transport ourselves down Fifth Avenue, and across 59th Street to Central Park and the seemingly unattainable Finish Line.  Someone hands me a medal!

Yes, Bill Rogers and I competed in this race together.  The only thing is, at the very moment Bill crossed the Finish Line in Central Park (after his run of 2 hours and 12 minutes), I was still jogging happily ... in Brooklyn!!

(I was following the best advice for running a Marathon: "Start off slowly, then ease up."

Bill and I competed again in New York in 1979, with similar results.

Bill went on to many more Marathon victories and eventually founded his own sporting goods company.  I continued my Marathon years with runs in San Diego, Miami two times, and Boston – six Marathons in all.  In San Diego I posted my best time of under five hours.  In Miami, my picture appeared in the Miami Herald newspaper.  In Boston the section of the route called “Heartbreak Hill” truly broke my heart.

With all due respect to Frank Shorter who started the “running craze” in the USA, it was the folks in Greece who founded formal international athletic competition right here in Olympia, one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece.

Temple ruins, training areas, the stadium grounds and two grand museums all attest to the Ancient Greek culture that encouraged religious devotion, physical conditioning and serious competition.  

Later, the Romans coined a phrase that is as important now as it was two thousand years ago, maybe now even more relevant:

The Latin phrase is: Mens sana in corpore sano.

You could look it up! 

Shall we emulate the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Romans and revive our own personal Running Boom?  Or maybe a Jogging Boom?  OK, a Walking Boom?

Let’s lace up our trainers and get out of the house!


 Mr. Jan, on the run.  See video below.

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