Heroes of the Marathon [Part 1]

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In this episode we share the stories of people who helped shape the sport of long distance running into what it is today. These marathon heroes set new records, defied conventional wisdom, and blazed a trail for others.

In this two part series we will be discussing five men and five women who shaped the sport.

The idea for this two part podcast was spurred by the recent death of Roger Bannister from the UK who was the first person to break four minutes in the mile in 1954. Bannister changed the running world forever. This got us to thinking . . . what runners have influenced the marathon distance in particular?

Men’s Marathon History

It’s been a while since we’ve done a history episode. There are hundreds of runners who deserve to be featured but we decided to narrow our focus to ten marathoners. This episode features five men and the next will feature five women.

Competitive running has most likely been around as long as mankind when the ability to run down an animal during a hunt would have been necessary for survival. The first Olympic Games took place in Greece in 776 B.C. and throughout history runners have been admired for their endurance and speed.

The name Pheidippides is forever linked with the marathon distance. In fact, even some non-runners know bits and pieces of the story of the Greek runner who collapsed and died after proclaiming “nike, nike” or victory in the battle against the Persians. But there’s way more to the story than the fable of running 26.2 miles and dying.

In fact, a fascinating book that talks about the history of this event is The Road to Sparta by Dean Karnazes (you can hear him talk about this book in episode #198).

Pheidippides was a hemerodromos, a day-long runner (or professional runner of the day) who, due to the rocky terrain and climate of Greece, could carry a message further and faster than a horse. His most famous run from Marathon to Athens (where the marathon gets its name) was not even his most impressive feat.


Pheidippides had to run to Sparta to recruit the Spartans against the invading Persians. He arrived in Sparta “the day after he set out”. This means he covered 153 miles (almost six marathons) in two days time probably without the benefit of rest or much nutrition.

The modern Olympic Games began in 1896 and the first male marathon winner was Spiridon Louis, a Greek water carrier, with a time of 2:58:50.

Ellison Myers Brown “Tarzan” Brown

Tarzan Brown photo credit: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

Tarzan Brown (AKA Deerfoot) was born in 1914 as a direct descendant of the royal family of the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island. He had six siblings but his three brothers died young (drowning, gun accident, and stabbing). He received little formal education and didn’t attend school beyond 7th grade. His nickname “Tarzan” was given to him in childhood because he loved to be outdoors climbing trees, swinging from branches, and because he had good balance and lots of strength. He was noticed for his running ability at age 12 and began training around age 16.

In the 1935 Boston Marathon his outfit was composed of remaking one of his mother’s old dresses and his shoes were falling apart. He threw them into the crowd at mile 21 and finished the marathon barefoot making him a fan favorite.

He was a two time winner of the Boston Marathon in 1936 (2:33:40) and 1939 (2:28:51, an American men’s record). He also ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and was scheduled to run in the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo which was cancelled due to the start of WW11. His marathon PR was 2:27:30. Before the 1939 Boston Marathon (which he won) it’s said that he missed breakfast and arrived shortly before the start eating hot dogs and drinking milk shakes.

He supported himself by working as a stonemason and shell fisherman. He married and had four children and often had to sell the medals and trophies he’d won in order to support his family. He died in 1975 after being hit by a van at the age of 61. There is an annual road race named in his honor in Mystic, CT. There is a book called Ellison Tarzan Brown: The Narragansett Indian Who Twice Won the Boston Marathon by Michael Ward.

Heart Break Hill got it’s name from Tarzan Brown. This hill is located between the 20th- and 21st-mile mark, the last of four hills in Newton. The name comes from the 1936 Boston Marathon, when defending champion Johnny Kelley passed leader Tarzan Brown at the Newton hills and gave him a pat on the back. It is unclear what this gesture meant. Tarzan Brown’s nephew said that Johnny Kelley touched him as if to say ‘All right, sonny, step aside -let the grown ups through. Kelly claimed he didn’t mean it to taunt Brown. Whatever it meant, the gesture caused Tarzan Brown to take off and leave Kelly in the dust. Tarzan won the race and Kelly faded to 5th place. Boston Globe reporter Jerry Nason wrote that Tarzan “broke Kelley’s heart” at the hill, thus coining the name “Heartbreak Hill.”

Read more at:

Ted Corbitt

Ted Corbitt was born in 1919 in the United States and is often called “the father of long distance running.” He was the grandson of slaves and born on a cotton farm in South Carolina. He ran everywhere as a child (including school) and competed in track in high school and college. But due to racial discrimination was sometimes banned from track meets when white athletes refused to compete against him. He entered the Army and served in World War 2 and earned a graduate degree in physical therapy from New York University. He was a physiotherapist and lecturer for 40 years.

Ted was the first African American to compete in the marathon held in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki and finished in 2:51:09. In 1954 won the Philadelphia marathon (he would win 3 more times there). He also won the Yonkers Marathon and at some point held US track records for the distances of 25 miles, the marathon, 40 miles, 50 miles, and 100 miles. He would win 30 marathons throughout his life. He also became an ultra marathon pioneer and developed standards to accurately measure courses and certify races (using a calibrated bicycle).

He was soft spoken and avoided attention. For many years some of his training involved doing a 20 mile running commute from his home in the Bronx to his office in Manhattan (and sometimes running home). During his peak training he ran up to 200 miles per week, most of these miles at a fast pace and his highest weekly mileage was 312.5.

He finished at least 221 lifetime marathons and ultras. He was one of the founders of the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) and founding president of the NY Road Runners Club. He also helped create the master’s division for runners. In his later life at age 82 he walked 303 miles in 6 days and at age 84 he finished 68 miles by walking in a 24 hour race. At age 87 he was still volunteering at various races and treating patients.

He was known for his health practices such as carefully chewing his food, drinking lots of water, self-massage, and abstaining from tobacco and alcohol. He was an early advocate of acupuncture and the use of weight training for athletes. He died at age 88 in 2007 after a battle with cancer. He and his wife Ruth had one son. He was inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in 1998 and the American Ultra Running Hall of Fame in 2006. The book Corbitt: The Story of Ted Corbitt, Long Distance Runner by John Chodes. The annual Ted Corbitt 15k race held in NYC is named after him.

For more info see: http://www.tedcorbitt.com/Home.html

Emil Zatopek

Emil Zatopek was born in 1922 in Czechoslovakia and started working in a shoe factory at age 16. He was noticed by a sports coach when he finished 2nd out of 100 during a race and began to take an interest in running. He modeled his training after Finnish great Paavo Nurmi.

He worked incredibly hard in training and is the originator of interval training and hypoventilation training. He trained in all weather including heavy snow wearing heavy work boots. In 1944 he broke the Czech records in the 2,000, 3,000 and 5,000 meters and although he’d joined the army was given time for his training.

He is best known for winning three gold medals at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. The amazing thing is that he first won medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter events and decided at the last minute to run the marathon (which was his first). His nickname was the Czech Locomotive because of his terrible running form, tortured facial expressions and because he often wheezed and panted while running. He stood 6’ and weighed 159lb (72kg). His PB at 5,000 meters was 13:57; at 10,000 meters was 28:54 (where he was the first runner to break 29 minutes) and 2:23:04 in the marathon. He later struggled with a groin injury.

His wife Dana was also an Olympian in the javelin throw. Emil was friendly and outgoing and spoke six languages. In the later ‘60’s he fell out of favor with the government was forced to work in dangerous jobs such as an uranium mine, garbage collection and well digging. He died in 2000 at the age of 78 as a result of a stroke. In 2012 he was named among the first 12 athletes to be inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame. There’s also a bronze statute erected in his honor. Books about him include Today We Die a Little by Richard Askwith and Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zatopek by Rick Broadbent.

From the Independent . . .

But the thing that excited people most about Zátopek was his humanity. They talked about his warmth, his sportsmanship, his spontaneous generosity. He gave tips and hospitality to star-struck young Western athletes who came to see him. He gave up his bed in the Olympic village (the Communist one) to a visiting Australian with nowhere to sleep. He invited another unauthorised visitor to train and dine with him. He gave his socks to his English rival, Pirie. He shared his training secrets with anyone who asked – and in mid-race would offer words of encouragement to rivals, or take the lead when it was not in his interests to do so, out of sportsmanship.

Read more: http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/olympics/emil-z-topek-the-greatest-olympian-who-vanished-from-public-life-after-he-defied-russian-tanks-in-a6951031.html

Abebe Bikila

Abebe Bikila
Abebe Bikila was born in 1932 in Ethiopia. As a child he played gena, a traditional long distance hockey game with goalposts that were sometimes miles apart. He served in the Ethiopian military starting in 1952 and during the mid-1950’s ran 20km (12 miles) from the hills of Sululta to Addis Ababa and back every day. It was during this time that a Swedish coach working for the Ethiopian government noticed him and began training him for the marathon. He was 5’10” and 126 lb (57kg).

He competed in the 1960 Olympics in Rome where he won the marathon running barefoot (also setting a world record). His second marathon victory in Athens was also run barefoot but soon afterward he switched to Puma shoes. After his first Olympic victory he was a hero in his country and given a chauffeur driven car and house by the government. His PB in the marathon was 2:12:11 set in Tokyo in 1964. Amazingly he’d been hospitalized and had an appendectomy just 4 months before this race.

I absolutely love this vintage video with the Ben Hur style music and the 1960s narrator voice.

He and his wife (who was 15 when they married) had four children. Throughout his career he ran in sixteen marathons, winning twelve. In 1967 he sustained the first of many injuries which prevented him from finishing his last two marathons. In 1969 he was paralyzed in a car accident and never walked again. But this didn’t quench his competitive spirit and he competed in archery and table tennis in the 1970 Stoke Mandeville Games in London (an early Paralympics games).

In 1971 he competed in Norway in archery, table tennis, and won a cross country sled dog race. Bikila died at age 41 in 1973 of a cerebral hemorrhage related to his earlier accident. He has been the subject of many honors in his home country and many biographies and films documented his athletic career. These include the film “The Athlete” (2009) and the book Barefoot Runner by Paul Rambali and “Bikila- Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian” by Tim Judah.

He helped establish East Africa as a force in marathon running . . . which it still dominates today. Sports Illustrated writer Kenny Moore says that he began “the great African distance running avalanche.” He also popularized the used of high-altitude training.

Read more:

Dennis Kimetto

Dennis Kimetto was born in 1984 in Kenya in a rural farming community. He enjoyed running races during his school days. He said, “I think what really motivates me to be a fighter is the fact that I come from a humble background. I try to really make sure I achieve my best so that I can assist my family.” He stands 5’7” and weighs 121lb (55kg).

After farming until his early 20’s and running an average of 4 miles per day he had a chance meeting with world class runner and fellow countryman Geoffrey Mutai and joined the same training group as Geoffrey in 2008. He began winning half marathons in 2011 (his PB is 59:14) and he holds the 25k road world record.

In 2012 he made the fastest marathon debut in history running 2:04:16 at the Berlin Marathon. He went on to win the 2013 Tokyo Marathon, the 2013 Chicago Marathon with a course record time of 2:03:45 and ran 2:02:57 at the 2014 Berlin Marathon to set the current world record. Apparently his wife was watching his world record race with friends and family in Kenya and passed out after he finished.

He has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in appearance fees, winnings and bonuses but continues to give back to his community in Kenya by building churches and schools and funding opportunities for younger athletes. He said,

“I also help young athletes who are at the start of their running career, because they are now like I used to be in the past and I know how important it is to be helped at the start.”

During the past three years he has been plagued by injury but he wants to break his own world record in Berlin in 2018.

There have been faster marathon times run including Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai who ran 2:03:02 at the Boston Marathon (not a world record course due to the point to point downhill profile). Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge took part in the Nike 2:00 Project and ran 2:00:25 at a Formula One Track in Italy in 2017.

It says something about the excellent running culture in Kenya that Dennis was able to quickly link up with the country’s best runners like Geoffrey Mutai. Dennis Kimetto was literally out on a run one morning and passed by Geoffrey Mutai who was impressed with Kimetto’s fluid stride and invited Dennis to come to his training camp.

There was an article in Scientific American that highlighted the running cultures in places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There are towns in these countries that are running hotbeds. The Ethiopian town of Bekoji which has a population of 16,000 has produced 10 Olympic gold medals, 15 world records and 34 World Championship gold medals in recent years.

These East African countries have been brilliant at setting up running clubs, training camps, and programs to mentor runners. Champion runners are like rock stars that inspire the next generation.

Stay tuned for PART 2 where we will discuss five remarkable women that have influenced our sport.

Also Mentioned in This Episode

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Overdrive App -featured as this episodes quick tip. All you need is a library card and from there you can choose from the thousands of audio books available for free. The book is checked out to you for 21 days after which time it goes back to the virtual library.

2 Responses to Heroes of the Marathon [Part 1]

  1. Ally O'Malley March 19, 2018 at 6:56 am #

    Thanks for the awesome app recommendation for Overdrive! Can’t wait for part 2 to come out!

  2. Chris Brown March 20, 2018 at 6:21 am #

    Love this history post! Thank you!!

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