In May The New York Times ran a story posing this question: Will someone soon break the two-hour barrier in the marathon?
As soon as I saw the headline I knew I would have to talk about it with Mike Cody. Mike is a well-known Memphis attorney and, as his many friends know, the real deal as a distance runner ever since his days at East High School and Rhodes (Southwestern) College 60 years ago.
If you are reading this and are not a runner or athlete, please bear with me a few minutes. This is not a sports column. It’s about friendship, aging, and human achievement, pretentious as that sounds.
Marathons were not always a big deal as they are now, when thousands of people race or walk in them in Memphis and other cities and display “26.2” or “13.1” vanity decals on their cars. According to legend, the ancient Greek Philippides ran from Marathon to Athens to bring the news of a great victory (“we have won”) and promptly collapsed and died. His time, training routine, sponsor, and shoe contract are not recorded. All he got was this crummy legend.
The current world record for the marathon is right around two hours and three minutes, with Kenyans flirting with the once unthinkable two-hour mark. Big world, lotta runners. With modern training and the ever-present possibility of performance enhancers, it seems likely the barrier will be passed in a year or so.
Two hours is one of those round numbers like 60 homers (Babe Ruth), 100 points (Wilt Chamberlain), and a mile in four minutes (Roger Bannister) that capture the public imagination and transcend sports. Mike Cody was a champion high school distance runner when Bannister broke the four-minute barrier in 1954.
“The excitement of an amateur runner doing that grabbed me so completely that I never got over it,” he says. “The simplicity and courage of Bannister running his heart out for 45 minutes during his lunch hour in medical school tells a different story than today’s marathoner, especially the great African ones, who are in the sport because of the money and have every crutch, legal or illegal, to use.
“They will reach a two-hour marathon with all the science but they will not be a Bannister. All times change, and sport for me will never return to the magic times when the tracks were cinders and the playing field level. I ran 35-plus marathons and they were all just work and little thrill. I ran hundreds of individual miles and each one was pure excitement.”
I’m not quite old enough to remember Bannister’s epic mile, but I do remember when track was as popular as football and basketball in the media, and when runners such as Herb Elliott, Bobby Morrow, and Bob Hayes appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the bible of sports in those days. My modest athletic talents did not include running or jumping, but I remember the pole-vaulter (Don “Tarzan” Bragg), high-jumper (John Thomas), long-jumper (Bob Beamon), and miler (Jim Ryun) who broke once unbreakable records. To me, there is nothing in sports as elemental or exciting as a close contest between runners or jumpers — any time, any place, anywhere.
People who feel this way never get over it. When they run into someone else like that they go off into a corner and talk about it. Mike Cody and I long ago cemented our friendship talking about sports — not the pros, but the amateurs, and our own quests to achieve, in Mike’s case, excellence or, in my case, a higher level of mediocrity.
Every week or so we run into each other at Rhodes, Mike with his shirt off chugging around the track or up and down the football field, and me whacking tennis balls or a squash ball on the courts. Our knees, backs, and legs are going, going, almost gone. But there is no place else we would rather be, and nothing else we would rather be doing. When you think of it, as we do now and then, there are a lot worse ways to go than going like Philippides.
We have won.