Marathon spirit: Three Menlo Park runners participate in the race where it all started
Intrigued by the origin of the marathon — the 26.2-mile race Arlene McCarthy and I had each run elsewhere 10 times — three of us decided to enter the Nov. 4 race on the first marathon's 2500-year-old course, in Athens, Greece.
We had first dreamed of running that original course after watching the men's and women's marathon races of the 2004 Olympics in Athens. It would be the first marathon run for Arlene's husband, Jim, and my husband, Henk Pechler, was happy to go with us as "towel boy," he said. Actually, he became our historian-translator as well.
Runners tell the legend of the Battle of Marathon: In 490 B.C., Greece's Athenian army defeated the invading Persians at this battle, 26 miles to the east of Athens, and then they sent their best runner, Philippides, (spelled variously) back to Athens to announce the victory. The legend concludes that after he spurted out his news, he collapsed and died.
Of course the three of us — all Menlo Park residents — expected to finish better! Nevertheless, we all ran slower than our usual pace, finishing after more than 5 hours of running.
"It was hard. That hill slowed us down," Arlene reported. (Mile 13 to Mile 20 was a 900-foot climb.) We all agreed about the hill, but also that finishing in the Olympic stadium in Athens was awesome.
Jim said he appreciated completing his first marathon on the ancient course, but added, "It was hard. Now I know why the original runner died." At around Mile 20, he said, he thought of speeding up. "My brain tried to go faster, but my quads said, 'no, this is as fast as we're going to run.' "
But for "older" runners — two 57-year-olds and a 67-year-old — we didn't do so poorly. The Greeks successfully sent the invading Persians out to sea from Marathon. We older runners are hoping to successfully keep the infirmities of aging at bay, partly by running from Marathon to Athens.
Keep it in motion
Increasingly, scientists are telling us to believe the adage "use it or lose it." We're learning that we can maintain (and build) healthy bodies only if we use them regularly, exercising in some way at least three times per week. Machines wear down with use, but bodies are just the opposite.
We have abundant and growing evidence that:
• Aerobic exercise several times a week greatly reduces the risk of preventable diseases, and it facilitates overcoming many diseases.
• Impact exercise (the foremost being running) increases bone density and collagen density of the joints.
Whereas with increasing age, oxygen use and recovery time slow down, older people are relatively good at endurance exercise.
The mind is half of the marathon effort. Endurance exercise requires determination, and older people are not disadvantaged in this crucial aspect.
Older people, even in their 80s, can build muscle.
I decided to run away from old-age infirmity when I was 59, when I was "looking over the abyss" into age 60. I signed up with Team in Training, the professional coaching/fundraising program of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, partly in order to have expert coaching to get started, and partly to honor my grandmother, who had died of leukemia.
Team in Training runners find donors to sponsor their events, with all funds raised benefiting the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Arlene and Jim had been running three to five miles almost daily most of their adult lives. A work friend encouraged Arlene to join Team in Training in 2000, when she was 50.
This year, when Jim learned Arlene and I were talking about going to Athens, he decided to make that historic run his first marathon, at age 57.
The Peninsula has many informal running groups, and many of these welcome newcomers.
Team in Training takes credit for a large part of the great buildup since the mid 1980's. Most of the organization's trainees are first-time marathoners.
The local San Jose chapter (408-271-2873) starts groups on the Midpeninsula that train for 18 to 20 weeks before a marathon. "We can turn any coach potato into a finisher," says Team in Training coach April Powers.
Carol Pechler is a Menlo Park resident and marathon enthusiast.