Thursday, September 25, 2014

On a Race




1. The Fastest Runners

In Book Four of his Histories, Herodotus tells us that the Kingdom of Garamantes was a powerful nation located in Libya. The Garamantean’s occupied lush oases in the Sahara desert. Their lands were well-watered and fertile and their people numerous. For sport, the Garamanteans hunted troglodyte Ethiopians, people who lived in caves in the scorched mountains to the east of their lands. The Garamanteans pursued the troglodytes in chariots drawn by four horses.

Capturing troglodyte Ethiopians was no easy task. The "Burnt Faces" or "Ethiopians" were swiftest runners on earth. Often, they outpaced the chariots pursuing them and they could run without resting for many miles. Herodotus says that the Ethiopians spoke a language "like no other" squeaking like bats to one another. They nourished themselves on snakes and other reptiles. Herodotus’ epithet for the Ethiopians is either "long-lived" or "fleet-footed" – he thought they were the most beautiful people on earth.

Herodotus’ account of the Garamantes and the cave-dwelling Ethiopians was regarded as a charming, if childish, fiction. Then, a few years ago, archaeologists discovered a rock shelter in Libya’s Acacus Mountains with stone surfaces covered with petroglyphs. Several of the paintings on the rock showed chariots apparently drawn by four-horse teams, that is, quadrigas to use the Greek term.

Ethiopian and Kenyan runners are the best in the world. (Kenya shares its northern border with Ethiopian.) Wikipedia lists 393 Kenyan long-distance runners; the same source lists 193 Ethiopian long-distance runners. The ten best times recorded for the marathon were all achieved by Kenyans and Ethiopians. These African runners can run a marathon course in about two hours and three minutes.

The Kingdon of Garamantes, whose nobility drove quadrigas in pursuit of the Ethiopians, no longer exists. The water table withdrew below the level of the foggaras or underground channels chiseled in the desert bedrock. Without water, the Garamantean cities withered and died. Sand eroded their palaces and their famous gardens perished.


2. A long distance race

In Austin where I live, a paved trail leads from a city park, through a tract of woods and along a creek to another larger city park with soccer fields and softball diamonds. The distance between the two parks is about 1.3 miles and most of the way the footpath leads through a picturesque forest. It is a good place to walk my dog, although caution is required – bicyclists jet along the trail between the two parks, noiselessly coming and going. On the trail, there is always something to see: basketball-sized white mushrooms growing from trees shattered by lightning, scarlet dragonflies, ornate fiddle-head ferns caressing the trunks of ancient oaks, water in all its varieties – trickling creeks, big loops of still, sullen river, lagoons remaining from floods, puddles black with decaying leaves.

Some sort of race must have been run along the footpath through the woods. I encountered chalk marks scribbled on the asphalt trail, foot-high letters. The first legend inscribed on the trail was near a railroad track, two huge staring eyes chalked on the asphalt and the words: LOOK FOR TRAINS. A little later, the path said U R HALFWAY, then RUN TO LIVE and a dozen yards father down the trail LIVE TO RUN. These last two admonitions were written in bright pink chalk. Another forty or fifty yards down the trail, I encountered a thick line drawn across the path and the words TWO MILES. Beyond the two mile mark, I came to a place where local satanists sometimes celebrated their rituals, a couple pentagrams pecked into the asphalt and a burned spot with some kind of organic substance melted into the tar, a bad, sweet odor over the remains of the bonfire, and, then, more pentagrams and a gang sign shaped like fat, bas-relief italics, the marks contoured with shadows painted onto the path. Not surprising, the trail said KEEP CALM and RUN ON beyond the satanist emblems. The trail crosses a pond, asphalt poured over a culvert through which sometimes a trickle of water flows and, then, there is a hill. On the hill, someone had chalked CHARGE UP THE HILL and JUST DO IT! The trail rode the crest of a river bank for two-hundred yards, then, dropped into the other park, a grassy meadow with swingsets, a steel slide, and a jungle-gym – UR FAST, the sidewalk said and, then, ALMOST THERE! At the edge of the park, the path was marked with white letters: LOCATE and two arrows pointing back down the sidewalk toward a set of brackets painted on the trail.

I would like to have seen some sign of the race’s finish line. But, apparently, the course continued beyond the park, down a residential lane, toward a destination unknown to me.


3. Fifteen minutes of Fame

The 1972 Summer Olympics were held in Munich. Terrorists murdered the members of the Israeli wrestling team. Today, the slaughter of the Israeli wrestlers is the only thing that most people recall about those Games. But I remember something else; I have a different memory.

I am watching TV. On the screen, a beautiful young man, blonde and with muscular legs, is trotting along the track in the great stadium. The young man has the classical Aryan features of a member of the Hitler Youth. His face is curiously vacant, indifferent, bland. He lopes along the track with a long graceful stride and his long hair streams behind him like a wreath of victory. The youth has the grace and solidity of an archaic Greek kouroi figure with broad shoulders and thick, powerful thighs and his face bears the same enigmatic, slightly mocking expression, insouciant pride in his strength and stamina. But, for some reason, everyone is howling at the young man, booing and denouncing him, and a great roar rises from multitude of people in the terraced bowl of the coliseum. The spectacle is curiously dreamlike and I have thought about it many times and wondered whether I really saw this young man taking his victory lap in the great German stadium.

East Africa was poor in 1972 and the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners who were later to outpace all rivals were insufficiently trained to compete at the Olympic level. The American runner, Frank Shorter, was favored to win the marathon. Shorter ran a strong race. After two-hours and ten minutes, Shorter appeared, running on the road between cheering crowds in the shadow of the coliseum. He was twenty or so seconds ahead of a Belgian runner struggling behind him.

Shorter had a long, easy stride and, although I presume that he was in agony, his pace was steady and his gait graceful. His face was a mask of determination, jaw set and eyes staring ahead of him. Shorter turned and ran through a dark arched opening that lead into the stadium. As he entered the opening, the cameras tracking him could not follow and so, for a moment, he vanished from the screens of the hundreds of thousands of people watching the race on television. In a grandiose long shot, the camera caught the lone runner striding alone down a straightaway. For a moment, the audience was confused – it seemed that Shorter had somehow lunged ahead, sprinted, perhaps, through the dark bowels of the stadium to emerge in the middle of the track under the eyes of the ten-thousand Germans assembled to watch the race. People rose to their feet and began to cheer loudly.

On the BBC, the announcer cried out with exaltation: "It’s Frank Shorter, well in the lead." Similarly, the two ABC commentators, Jim McKay and Eric Siegel, a professor of Greek, bestselling novelist, and Herodotus scholar, shouted that "Frank Shorter has entered the stadium." But, a moment later, the BBC sportscaster howled: "No, no, no – it’s a hoax, he’s an imposter, that’s not Frank Shorter, he’s having a lark. Look at him, he’s as fresh as a buttercup." Jim McKay said: "This is not Frank Shorter." By this time, Shorter had entered the stadium. Eric Siegel was horrified: "Frank doesn’t know that he’s won. He’s looking at the other guy. He thinks the other guy is going to win." Siegel abandoend all pretense at objectivity and addressed Shorter directly: "No, Frank, keep going, you’ve won. He’s fake. Don’t let it bother you – Frank, you’re the winner."

The cameramen did not know which runner to show. In a picturesque close-up, filmed with a long lens, the beautiful blonde runner swept forward, barely sweating, moving with lissome precision. His eyes were opaque and mysterious and he seemed to be scarcely breathing. The crowd roared its approval to the blonde runner, but he ignored the accolades, surging forward toward the finish line. Eric Siegel screamed: "Get him! Get him off the track! Someone should get him!" Jim McKay said that the entire Olympic games had been marred by chaos and confusion and "just when you think that nothing more awful could occur than this happens." Someone signaled to the photographers that they were filming the wrong man. The live-feed cut to Shorter. Shorter was emaciated and haggard-looking. He kept looking to his left, apparently startled and baffled by the runner who seemed to be cruising toward an easy victory 200 yards ahead of him.

Just short of the finish line, the blonde runner suddenly changed directions and ran off the track into the darkness under the stadium. Shorter continued forward and finished the race. By this time, the ten-thousand people in the stadium were booing loudly and whistling and stamping their feet. Shorter continued to trot forward after he had won the race, apparently unable to stop the ceaseless motion of his long, slender legs. "You’ve won," Siegel cried into his microphone. "You’ve won." Shorter glanced over his shoulder and, then, looked around in all directions, gradually slowing. He seemed to be searching for the phantom runner. Clearly, he was baffled by the loud booing and catcalls coming from the stands.

This was not the first time such a thing had occurred. In August 1904, the Summer Games were held in a steamy St. Louis, Missouri. On the day of the marathon, humidity was high and the temperature stood at 90 degrees. The American front-runner, Frederick Lorz, managed nine-miles of the hilly and grueling course. Then, he exited the race and hitched a ride on a motorcar for eleven miles. His conspirator deposited him at the foot of a hill seven miles from the finish line when their car broke-down and he ran the rest of the way to the stadium. Like the German in 1972, Lorz was cheered by the crowd and, even, awarded the medal. Later, his ruse was discovered. Second-place in the race had gone to Thomas Hicks and, ultimately, he was given the gold medal. Hicks had trouble on the last couple hills and seemed on the verge of collapse. His trainers gave him a mixture of strychnine and egg-whites dissolved in brandy and Hicks revived enough to complete the race, although the elixir that he had been administered almost killed him in the aftermath of the marathon. In 1980, the Boston Marathon’s women’s division was apparently won by Rosie Ruiz. Ruiz had run only one mile. She slipped from the middle of the pack and rode the subway to within a half-mile of the finish line and, then, hustled back onto the course and finished the race. Ruiz was a serial cheater; she had qualified for the Boston Marathon by achieving a good time in the New York marathon run a few months before. In that race, she had also used the subway to reach the finish-line. (Ruiz was dishonest in many ways – she was, later, convicted of embezzling, served time in jail, and, then, a few years later, went to prison for cocaine trafficking.) As late as 2000, Ruiz continued to maintain that she was the true victor of the 1980 Boston Marathon.

As the German imposter smoothly rounded the corner of the track, Jim McKay said: "We need to know the name of this guy." Eric Siegel replied: "No, no, I hope no one ever hears his name." The German runner wore bright orange shorts and a blue track shirt with a laurel wreath over his heart. On his back, he wore the number 72. After the race, the imposter was arrested in the tunnel under the coliseum and, immediately, taken to see Willi Daume, the German chairman of the Olympic committee. Daume was a controversial figure; he had been a star athlete during the Hitler period and some people doubted his commitment to democracy. It is not recorded what Daume said to the German imposter. It is also unclear as to whether the man had violated any laws or was ever charged with any crime – is it contrary to statute to pretend to be the winner in a marathon race?

Frank Shorter’s time was unimpressive by Olympic standards – he won the race in two hours, 12 minutes, and 19.7 seconds. (His own best time was two minutes faster). The German police were unable to explain how the imposter had got onto the track. The marathon course was complex – it had been designed in the form of the profile of dog, Waldi, the mascot for the 1972 races. Perhaps, the German had darted out onto the course in one of the many turns and corners necessary to trace the dog’s silhouette on the streets of Munich.


4. Redemption

The runner who cheated in the 1904 marathon race in St. Louis, Fred Lorz, ran again in 1905. Lorz was a bricklayer by trade. Photographs show a saturnine young man with a dull, simple-minded face. Lorz always contended that he had not meant to cheat in the St. Louis Olympics. He said that he had collapsed on the course at the nine-mile mark, been picked up by a motorist and driven toward the finish line. When the car broke down, Lorz simply ran the rest of the way to the stadium and did not know that he was ahead of the other competitors. He claimed to have crossed the finish line by accident, spurred on my cheering crowds that he was too ashamed to disappoint. He said he was surprised when he was awarded the medal and meant no harm.

Lorz was a real athlete and he won the Boston Marathon in 1905, completing the race in a creditable two hours and 38 minutes.

The German imposter was a 22-year old student from a provincial West German city. His name, which you can discover on the internet, was N – S –. Herr S– claimed that he had intervened in the race to "cheer people up" since the world was mourning the Israeli athletes murdered a few days earlier. S– said that his appearance on the track was a practical joke and that he had meant no harm. (Herr S– did not explain how his hoaxing a victory in the marathon was supposed to "cheer people up." Why would his fake victory be any more heartening than Shorter’s actual success in winning the race?)

Shorter was angry at the hoaxer and the German officials. He felt that he had been deprived of the glory of his victory. Herr S – sent Shorter a letter a few years later begging for his forgiveness. Shorter tore the letter up and did not respond.

Herr S– decided to atone for his prank by becoming an actual marathon athlete. For several years, he trained and, in fact, qualified for the half-marathon in Munich, a road race run on part of the course where Shorter had prevailed in 1972. He ran full marathons in Berlin and Hamburg. Each time he completed a marathon, he sent a card to Shorter announcing the fact. Between 1971 and 1974, Shorter was victorious each year at the Fukuoka marathon in Japan, a race run on the first Saturday in December each year. Herr S– took an interest in that race, probably because of its association with Shorter, and began traveling to Japan to participate in the late seventies. The Fukuoka marathon is open and no qualifying time is required, but the race attracts world-class runners. In 1981, Herr S– was at the height of his powers as a long-distance runner, a respectable contender in the middle of the field. At Fukuoka, he paced the Ethiopian star, the world-class Tsegaye Kebede, for the first nine miles but, then, stumbled on the wet pavement (it was raining), badly tearing ligaments in his knee. Herr S– was treated in a local hospital and, when he recovered, remained in Japan. He was the son of a German industrialist and independently wealthy and, in Fukuoka, Herr S– was not notorious for his 1972 escapade. By the late eighties, Herr S– was a member of the Board of Directors of the Fukuoka marathon. Each year, he sent an invitation to Frank Shorter to come to the city and run, at least a 10K race or a half-marathon. Shorter, who had become a well-known motivational speaker, declined the invitations.

Fukuoka is famous in Japan for its Yamakasa matsuri (festival). This festival celebrates a 12th century monk who saved the town from the plague by carrying a shrine on his shoulders through each street, blessing all intersections and dowsing them with holy water. The monk’s exertions were successful and the pestilence departed from the city. Like the original runner of the marathon, however, the monk died of exhaustion. In the matsuri, teams of men from each ward of the city carry heavy wooden altars on their shoulders, lugging the big shrines weighing several thousand pounds, through the streets, completing a course laid-out in nine-hundred years before. The teams compete with one another and the race is both dangerous (shrines have fallen from their platforms crushing competitors) and exhausting. Each year, Herr S– stripped to his loin cloth, the traditional shimekomi, and participated on the team from his neighborhood. In 1991, the race was run in a torrential rainstorm – Fukuoka is sub-tropical and July, the month of the competition, is part of the rainy season. It was hot, almost ninety degrees, (34 degrees centigrade) and windy with typhoon-force gusts and the race was extraordinarily arduous. After completing the course, Herr S– collapsed and died that evening in an ambulance en route to the hospital. No one informed Shorter and, as far as I am aware, he doesn’t know to this day that Herr S– died in Japan in July 1991.


5. The Trail

I walked my dog from the park with the playground equipment through the woods to the railroad tracks across the road from the softball diamonds and soccer fields. The scarlet dragonflies still patrolled the trail. Black crickets like tiny frogs hopped from the grass across the asphalt path – I saw them every fifteen or twenty feet. The grasshoppers were lethargic, overfed victims of their own autumnal success – they lay on their bellies on the trail, unable to move, comatose, fat as cigar butts tossed down on the sidewalk,

It had rained several times since my last tour of the trail and the admonitions chalked onto the sidewalk were all washed-away. They had vanished like the oases and palaces of the Garamanteans. An African emigrant jogging on the trail passed me. He moved with long, loping strides. I said "hello" to him, but he didn’t hear. He had headphones over his ears.

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