Remember Boston. Remember The Athenians.
Excerpt from The Joy of Running, new edition of the 1976 bestseller.
GOD BLESS ALL THE MARATHONERS, families, and friends who perished or were injured as a result of the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Whether they know it or not, marathoners are true believers in, and defenders of, the freedom of the individual. Their running the marathon resonates with the first decisive victory of that concept against tyranny, over 2500 years ago. To those who would enslave, to those who can’t understand or tolerate freedom—to terrorists—each and every marathoner is a rebel, a threat.
The idea of man enslaved to an idea beyond himself—whether it be religion or the state—was first challenged and broken in ancient Greece. There a new, fresh vision of man came into being. The gods were not absolute. Laws were not fixed and rigid. Man had an opportunity to change his social position. He was not necessarily enslaved. This idea was fragile and was one of the concepts that helped spawn the Golden Age of Greece.
In Persia, in the East, the concept of the monolithic state grew and flourished. The ancient Persian Empire threatened the independence of the Greek city states, attacked the West and emerged victorious, invading as far as the Danube. They seemed invincible. They had successfully enslaved most of the known world. The Greeks, with their newly discovered concepts of gods, laws and man, often fought with each other and could not seem to stop the marching hordes of men whose views of themselves and the world were so different.
Finally, after long debates, voting and politics, the Greeks formed a confederacy and together fought the Persians. The Greek confederates were Athenians.
The King of the Persians, Darius, was enraged at the Athenians, for they had dared to remain free. According to Herodotus, “He took his bow, shot an arrow into the sky and prayed: ‘Oh! Supreme God, grant me that I may avenge myself on the Athenians.’” And he had a servant remind him each day, “Sire, remember the Athenians.”
It was 490 B.C. The Persians had landed near the town of Marathon. They had 100,000 or more men, and they had cavalry. The Athenians, encamped on the heights above the Plain of Marathon, had, at best, 11,000 men, and no cavalry. It was the entire Athenian army. Athens was undefended. If they lost this battle, the concept of individual liberty would be lost to the world.
The Greeks launched a surprise attack. Eleven thousand Greeks came down from the hills in a line of spears, heavy on the flanks, the center of the line thin. Usually the Greeks advanced slowly and steadily, but here a new tactic was born: the Greeks ran at the Persians. The Persians thought them mad, but carnage followed: the Persians were routed and fled back to their ships. There were 6,400 Persians dead. The Greeks lost 192 men.
Then one Athenian messenger, Philippides, ran the 22 miles from the Plain of Marathon to Athens. When he finally reached Athens, he cried out, “Rejoice, we conquer,” and fell dead.
That was the first marathon. It celebrated the victory not only of an armed conflict but the victory of an idea, the idea that the individual does matter.That same victory of freedom over slavery is won by every person who finishes a marathon. It is the runner’s own individual effort that enables him or her to finish. The marathoner can, and should, be helped by others. But in the final analysis the runner is there alone, an individual testing himself, finding himself. It is a unique celebration of individuality.
Every marathon is a celebration of individual freedom, but the Boston Marathon stands apart as a special symbol. It is always run on Patriots’ Day, which celebrates America’s freedom and the patriots who fought to establish and protect that freedom. It is no coincidence that this marathon was attacked. Boston is America’s Athens.
The battle that began the War of Independence took place near Boston. Three very profound victories for freedom come together in Boston every time the marathon is run—the personal victory of each and every runner, the victory of the American birth of freedom, and the victory of the Athenian idea of individual liberty. All three come together in the streets of Boston, and all three were attacked.
Marathoners have always known that death stalks the race—that’s why there are so many medical personnel in attendance at races. Now we know that tyranny also stalks the race. The marathon defies both and celebrates freedom and life. The Spirit of the Marathon and the Martyrs of Boston now unite to send a message of defiance to all who would deny, enslave, and suppress. The message is: We will run. We will run Boston. And just as every marathon resonates with the victory of that first one, every marathon will also now resonate with Boston and its celebration of our freedom. Rejoice, we conquer!
—Thaddeus Kostrubala, MD