On Marathons and Feet
by Aracelis Girmay
The 1904 Summer Olympics took place in St. Louis, USA. It was the first time the Olympics were held outside of Europe, and it was the first year that boxing, weightlifting, freestyle wrestling, and the decathlon were added to their list of official sports.
The marathon of that year went down in history as one of the most bizarre competitions of the Games. Thomas Hicks, the winner of that race, was aided through the last 14 or 15 miles by his trainers who provided him rat poison mixed with brandy to keep him running. Clocking in at 3 hours, 28 minutes and 53 seconds, Hicks still holds the record for the slowest Olympic marathon winner ever in the world.
And that was the year that Fred Lorz, having been carried in a car for part of the race, faked a win, taking his picture with President Roosevelt’s daughter before officials found him out. The Cuban Félix “el andarín” Carvajal ran in that race, too, and is known as the occasional postman who raised money for his trip to St. Louis by running laps through Havana’s streets and parks while soliciting onlookers.
The marathon took place on a blistering August day, and Carvajal arrived at the starting line in long pants that a discus player cut into shorts for him just before the race. During the marathon, and presumably because he did not have much food on his trip, Carvajal grew hungry and thirsty and stopped to eat apples from an orchard and got sick. Some records say he took a nap, others say that he had to rest awhile because of severe stomach cramping or gastritis. In any case, when his sickness subsided, he got back in the race and (bewilderingly) finished fourth.
A whisper: I tell you this not because Carvajal is the center of the story, but because I mean to highlight how marathons are the stories of the moving from here to there that happens even before the race begins. In her book Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle describes what Ezra Pound learned from Ernest Fenollosa, “that we each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words . . . if you are blessed, they are heard by someone who knows you and loves you and will be sorry to hear the sentence end.” Might, too, the body be making another kind of long, but wordless, sentence of postures and strides? Might the marathon be thought of as one long phrase in one much longer sentence of gesture, breath, the presence and exertion of the full and “uttering” body?
But let’s get back to 1904. Lorz and Hicks and Carvajal. It was also the year that Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani, two students from Orange Free State, South Africa, were in St. Louis as part of the Boer War exhibit for the World’s Fair/Olympic sideshow. (Advertised as a historical libretto, this war reenactment featured upwards of 500 veterans and civilians of the second Boer War of 1899-1902.) Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani were asked to compete in the marathon, not as representatives of South Africa, but as individuals. They were the first black Africans to ever compete in the Olympics. Mashiani finished in twelfth place and Taunyane finished in ninth. Eyewitnesses lamented Taunyane’s race saying he was chased nearly a mile off course by a pack of aggressive dogs. Also, Taunyane was barefoot.
In all of the stories, paintings, and sculptures, Pheidippides of ancient Greece and “father” of the marathon, was also barefoot. This fabled foot messenger in whose memory the marathon was devised was said to have run 25 miles from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens in order to carry the news of Greek victory over the Persians. He did this run on the heels of a 150-mile run to request help from the Spartans when the Persians first landed at Marathon, just days before. The legend goes: after making it to Athens to announce the Greeks’ victory, he collapsed and died, having run a total of around 175 miles in just three days.
The last two stanzas of Robert Browning’s 1879 poem “Pheidippides” secure the runner’s place in lore:
Unforeseeing one! Yes, he fought on the Marathon day:
So, when Persia was dust, all cried "To Akropolis!
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
'Athens is saved, thank Pan,' go shout!" He flung down his shield,
Ran like fire once more: and the space 'twixt the Fennel-field
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
Till in he broke: "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine thro' clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died—the bliss!
So, to this day, when friend meets friend, the word of salute
Is still "Rejoice!"—his word which brought rejoicing indeed.
So is Pheidippides happy forever,—the noble strong man
Who could race like a god, bear the face of a god, whom a god loved so well,
He saw the land saved he had helped to save, and was suffered to tell
Such tidings, yet never decline, but, gloriously as he began,
So to end gloriously—once to shout, thereafter be mute.
"Athens is saved!"—Pheidippides dies in the shout for his meed.
As Browning suggests, Pheidippides is beloved because he performed a remarkable physical feat in a time of desperation. He pushed his body to its ultimate limit for the sake of some greater collective or hope. He did what we love our athletic heroes to do, and was beautiful and graceful as he did it—as were Muhammad Ali and Nadia Comăneci when they won their golds. And if our heroes aren’t graceful and beautiful, then we love for them to be, at least, gritty and raggedy, falling apart at the seams and pushing through an epically ugly pain—as diver Greg Louganis did, and as gymnast Kerri Strug when she, injured and limping, took that famous second vault in Atlanta.
We love our heroes to be symbols, something more. As was Pheidippides, whose heart lasted—and didn’t burst until he had completed his duty and delivered the news to Athens of the victory in Marathon.
The site of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, from which Pheidippides ran to deliver the news, is still a coastal town in the East Attica region of Greece. In Greek, “marathon” literally means “fennel-field” or “a place with fennels.” And one speculates that the town of Marathon was so named because it was, literally, once, a fennel field—a place, like so many places, named for its geographical characteristics. The word “marathon,” then, carries with it a geographical point of reference, evoking the characteristics of the land over which Pheidippides took the first strides of his heroic run.
Fennel is indigenous to the Mediterranean coast, but can be found now all over the world—as it is hearty and adaptable. For the Greeks, it was very common. The plant, known for its yellow flower heads and dill-like, thread-like leaves, commonly grows a stalk of over three-feet. It is the fennel stalk that Dionysus uses to make his wand, and it is the fennel stalk that Prometheus uses to steal fire back from Zeus. So this word, marathon, that has come to mean “feat” or “race” to so many of us, means herb, a common weed whose stalk was used by Prometheus to return fire to the world. Now when I watch the marathon, I picture messengers striding over, or from, a field overgrown with fennel turned into a battlefield. I picture them delivering some kind of news.
From sit-ins to protests and boycotts, the Olympics, from their international beginning in 1896, have been the stage for personal and political dramas. Arguments for and against nationalism and supremacy have been played and replayed there. We have witnessed political dominance, for a moment, upended by the underdogs. Or not. For much of the last century the Games have reflected the political turmoil and struggles of its participants and their countries. By virtue of being an international stage, the Games have enabled its viewers to witness the births of nations and the collapse of nations, and, what’s more, the births and deaths of ways of thinking. The Games change as we change, and the men’s marathon, in particular, has been a kind of linchpin symbol of these struggles for change from the beginning.
Since the International Olympics started, the men’s marathon has traditionally been the last event. With a finish line inside of the stadium, the race usually ends within hours of the closing ceremony to the cheers and eyes of millions around the world. And so in 1960, when Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila ran his first Olympic marathon in Rome, just 25 years after Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia under Mussolini’s rule, the world was already assigning a political narrative to the scene, which is to say, it was quite easy to read that particular competition through the lens of race, power, and nationalism. In fact, for many it seemed a kind of post-colonial reckoning or, depending on your perspective, a threat to the old order.
As a child growing up in Southern California in the 80s, my relationship to the Horn of Africa, when not mediated by my family, was complicated. The fact that the Eritrea I was taught to believe in, having yet to win its independence from Ethiopia, was “nowhere” on the map was one thing. But the other was this: in the public imagination Ethiopia was, if imagined at all, either a kind of mythical center for Pan-Africanist ideals, where Haile Selassie once sat regally on a throne made of velvet and intricately carved wood, or was the epicenter of all suffering, epitomized by the image of a young child in famine time, belly swollen and lips cracked from dryness—a body covered in flies.
And so it was special to me to have heard the story of this famous runner from Jato whose name meant “flower,” whose name everyone knew, whose father was a shepherd, who trained in the vastness of the Ethiopian highlands dotted by acacia trees and villages where loud and laughing children waited to race him for a few yards to claim that they had run ahead of Abebe Bikila once.
I loved that he was remembered for the quiet beauty of his running—as running was, I thought, an act that spoke for itself. Like dancing. It required no words but was, somehow, its own eloquence. My parents taught me to love running. (My mother was a runner in her youth and my father, who played soccer, had followed Bikila’s running as a child.) I took this “inheritance” to heart.
In elementary school, though I was a really quiet kid, I could run. That exertion was its own fluency. Different from language, of course, but certainly a way of being present in the world, and with others. I remember the President’s Challenge Fitness Test in fifth grade and how, lap upon lap around the schoolyard, I grew stronger, somehow less tired, amazed at how easy and good it felt to stretch my legs out and over the grass and tiny white dots of grass flowers. Weeks or months later I came home with a stock letter from President Reagan saying I had scored in some percentile, and congratulating me on my fitness level.
I don’t remember either of my parents saying much about that letter, but I do remember getting the idea from them that I was strong, focused, enduring and fast. I ran in races from middle school to college (no longer the fastest, mind you) and sometimes felt free, as if my breathing were in complete communion with the dirt and hills and sky. It was a kind of soulful practice—to find one’s prolonged rhythm while also learning to gauge how and when to push, according to one’s body and the body of the land.
While Eritreans and Ethiopians alike were suffering under the Derg in the early 80s, and ongoing civil war and unrest, it had become especially important to me to know that this man, Abebe Bikila, had once set foot on the international stage by the beautiful and enduring repetition of his stride alone.
Bikila is said to have run the Rome marathon of 1960 barefoot because the shoes sponsored by Adidas didn’t fit him properly. At the beginning of the marathon, Bikila’s coach, the Finnish born Onni Niskanen, was said to have told the Ethiopian team the race numbers of the competitors to watch out for. Among them was number 26, Rhadi Ben Abdesselam of Morocco. What Niskanen didn’t know, however, is that though Ben Abdesselam was supposed to have been wearing number 26, he was actually wearing number 185.
The footage from the marathon is easy to find online. For much of the race, Bikila and Abdesselam ran very close to each other without Bikila ever knowing who Abdesselam really was—he kept his eye open for number 26 who, he imagined, was somewhere up ahead. Strategically, Bikila saved some kick for a last imagined confrontation with number 26, but there was no such competitor up ahead. When Bikila passed the Obelisk of Axum (an Italian war trophy plundered from Axum in 1937) he began to pull away from number 185, winning the race in 2 hours 15 minutes and 16 seconds.
That year Bikila broke the world record and became the first black African to win gold in the Olympics. He was an international star.
Rife with symbolism, Bikila finished the race beneath the famous Arch of Constantine. First erected to commemorate Constantine I’s victory over then emperor Maxentius in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the arch is decorated with reliefs depicting great men of Rome hunting animals, among them a large and muscular lion upon which five men stand. It is nearly impossible not to think of Haile Selassie here, his beloved imperial lions and the “Conquering Lion of Judah” among his royal epithets.
I replay the footage of Abebe Bikila running toward the Arch of Constantine and over the ancient road of Via Appia—the road along which 6,000 slaves in Spartacus’ army were crucified from Rome to Capua in 71 B.C. Bikila is barefoot and wearing the number 11 (his legs thin as the numbers), as hundreds of well-dressed spectators styled in sorbet colored blouses and pants and skirts cheer him on. So substantial is the nationalist and political symbolism of the Games, and this race in particular, it is sometimes a struggle to see the body running, diving, or jumping in human scale.
Consider the reasons we run. The early humans ran to hunt and wear down their prey. Today we run towards things, and away. We run towards food, health, sanity, safety. We run away from danger. We run towards opportunity, resources, chances—often times leaving home, a common language, love, culture, emotional resources behind.
Depending on the landscape through which the body runs, depending on the shape and color of the body, we read this unadorned and simple act of running differently. Consider the San Diego Freeway marked with yellow animal-crossing signs that depict, instead of a deer or elk, a man and a woman running and dragging their child behind them to get to the U.S. side of the border. A body running here will be read very differently from that same body running in the suburbs or for a New York City bus. Consider Jonathan Ferrell in North Carolina, running toward police for help after a car accident, and being shot and killed by one of them because his running (or blackness or masculinity or muscularity) was seen as a threat by the white officer. Or consider the scene in Mehdi Charef’s Daughter of Keltoum when Nedjma runs alongside Rallia’s departing bus, her blood-brown skirts and cloths a small line of color against the otherwise blank heat of the desert in the frame. For some, this body is a signal of desperation and insignificance against the landscape, while for others her running represents a vivacity and unbridled freedom atop the hot face of the world.
Now, if I try to leave aside the ugly or limiting constructions (of race, region, nationality and citizenship) by which I have been taught to read this story, this act, this body, if I leave aside what James Baldwin calls “the bloody catalogue of oppression which we are too familiar with anyway,” I am given a quiet gift. I am taught to see running again, newly—running, that fundamental motion described in upright animals as being the gait at which, in regular intervals, both feet are off the ground.
The rare opportunity we have to watch someone run, as we do with the marathon, for a prolonged amount of time, mile upon mile, is an intimate one. There are very few competitions that allow us to spend such time with a single contestant, or two, as they, in perpetual and rhythmic motion, traverse a landscape. For me, to watch a marathoner is to watch something deeply personal and solitary, made public. The length of the race exhausts even its viewers, familiarizing us with the body in motion, its colors, faces, and idiosyncracies. We spend so much time with the athlete that we sometimes lose track of the values and associations we have attributed to the running body.
Consider Bikila, the repetition of his act: the arms and legs moving in rhythm, the simple beauty of the stride—that momentary flight, the perpetual leaping from foot to foot in forward and efficient motion. His face forward, looking both ahead and, somehow, seemingly inward.
His shoelessness also teaches me something. At the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, when gold and silver medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in protest of human rights violations of black people by the U.S. government and majority, they were also barefoot. They wore black socks to symbolize the poverty of Black America. Smith’s scarf and Carlos’ bead necklace recalled the lynchings, and their gloved fists symbolized the power of Black America. While Bikila’s race was not a protest per se, to see him running along the ancient Roman road with its monuments and spoils of war, offers up a beautiful contrast to imperial obsessions with preservation and greatness. Compared to Rome’s architectural manifestations of conquest, industrialization, and fascism, the act of one human running barefoot becomes, for me, an opportunity to contemplate the value or generosity of the ephemeral. The beauty of transport or sport stripped down to its most fundamental layer. The body leaves its track, nothing more, and is decidedly not a monument.
In recent years, upwards of 15,000 immigrants each year brave the Mediterranean Sea in compromised boats and ships in attempts to reach the island shores of Italy. Thousands upon thousands have died in this crossing. In early October alone, at least three of these vessels sunk killing upwards of 300 people. These are people from war-torn or economically oppressed countries in the Middle East and Africa who are in search of refugee status or political asylum. Those who survive, “the lucky” ones, are held in refugee camps for months awaiting their status. Watching footage of Bikila I can’t help but think of the particular beauty of a brown body running freely through Rome—escorted by police, not pursued by them.
It is with this sense of urgency and quietude that I play and replay the footage of the last meters of Bikila’s race. The soles of his feet directly touch their route—a road made for wheels and horses and carts, but this time touched by feet that, unlike hands, take nothing. They simply strike and strike against the ground, touching what they touch but leaving everything. And though it is 2013, and I know what happens in the race, a surprising joy takes hold as I continue to watch his footfalls, each one a kind of meditation on simplicity and breathing, on grace. (A monk’s work.) His shadow darkens the route, keeping time, momentarily marking the land with a new and gentle history, however fleeting.
ARACELIS GIRMAY's collage-based picture book, changing, changing, was published by George Braziller in 2005. Her first book of poems, Teeth, was published by Curbstone Press in 2007. Her second poetry collection, Kingdom Animalia, was published by BOA Editions in October, 2011 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the winner of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, among many other honors. She is currently an Assistant Professor of poetry at Hampshire College.