Thinking about Sundays Adirondack Marathon in Schroon Lake, I cant help but glance at our fireplace mantle. There is a gold watch, still in running order, that belonged to a marathoning pioneermy great grandfather George McDonald. Most people know the legend of the origins of the marathon. Supposedly in 490 B.C . a Greek soldier named Pheidippides ran either the northern route (21.4 miles) or the flatter southern route (25.4 miles) from the site of the Battle of Marathon to Athens, where he died after announcing the Greek victory over the Persians. The modern marathon--the distance of which was finally fixed at 26.22 miles in 1924-- commemorates this feat, and, appropriately, a Greek, Spiridon Louis, won the first modern Olympic marathon.
But the American marathon has its own roots, which can be traced to Irish immigrants. Following large-scale Irish-Catholic immigration to the United States in the mid-19th century, Americans wondered whether their essentially Anglo-Protestant culture could be retained. There was a great fear of Irish-Catholic immigrants, which led to prejudice and discrimination. As a result, jobs were hard to come by for the Irish in America.
At about the same time gamblers began to organize long-distance runs for sport. These races sometimes lasted as long as five days and were often held in major venues, such as Madison Square Garden, in New York City.
While the races were enjoyable for spectators and gamblers, the runners were treated like animals. There were no modern training techniques, so menmostly young Irish men desperate for moneyran for days without water, food or medical attention. It was winner-take-all, so the competition was fierce; runners actually died trying to win.
Eventually, in the 1880s, such events were banned because of the rising numbers of deaths. But the Irish had found a niche; they were todays Kenyans a century ago without corporate sponsorship.
A decade later the first American marathon was held in Yonkers. The race attracted a number of Irish runners who took the idea home and began the Boston Marathon as a way of maintaining their heritage. They realized, like many of those in Schroon Lake this weekend, that running wasnt something they did, it was part of who they were.
George McDonald, my great grandfather, was one of those professional runners of the 1880s. He also ran in the first-ever Boston Marathon in 1896.
Can distance running be found in our genes? I doubt it, but I find it interesting that my great-grandfather was a marathon runner and a century later Ive followed in his footsteps. And who knows, maybe in another century my descendants will complete what I believe to be the ultimate physical and mental challenge.
My daughter Meaghan has been running since junior high school. She went on to become captain of her college cross-country team and is now training for her first marathon. One day while in high school she announced, I love to run; I wish I could do it all the time.
I was pleased. Im certain her great-great grandfather would be, too.
Now my younger daughter, Hannah, is running. Her first-ever race was this past Tuesday. And tomorrow Ill lace up the old running shoes one more time for the Adirondack Half Marathon. And so a family tradition, more than a century old, continues.