Keeping in Step

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   June 18, 2024

You have probably heard about the restaurant customer who says to the waiter “Bring me a scrambled egg – and step on it!” I can almost guarantee that that joke did not originate before 1900. Why? Because it was only the coming of the automobile (which started happening about then) that brought to public consciousness a pedal called the “accelerator,” which the driver stepped on to get more speed. And so “step on it” became a metaphor for “do it fast.”

Of course, there were other, earlier, expressions for “go fast” in what we might call the Pre-Automotive Age. One, as a sort of cliché, was “Home, James – and don’t spare the horses!” The poor horses had nobody to speak on their behalf – at least, not until 1824, with the founding in England of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Measurements of human speed, as you probably know, go back much farther than that. One milestone (so to speak) supposedly occurred in 490 B.C., when a Greek runner raced from a battlefield at a place called Marathon to the capital in Athens to report a Greek victory over invading Persians. This story was not related until about 500 years later, by the Greek historian Plutarch, who included the touching detail that, after giving his news, the runner dropped dead.

And, with the revival of the (originally Greek) Olympic Games in the 1890s, the idea of staging footraces over that same original distance of about 26 miles has acquired vast and enduring popularity. And the very word “marathon” has come to be applied to all kinds of competitive activities, from cooking to ballroom dancing. Some of these events were really endurance contests. In 1969 a movie was made about the dancing version of the ordeal. It was called, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It graphically depicted what some people were willing to go through, back in the Depression Era of the 1930s, for the sake of big cash prizes. Of course, these exhausting tourneys had strict rules. Between the brief and widely spaced rest periods, the couples had to remain on their feet, and moving in some sort of perceptible pattern, although, in the last stages, they were in effect holding each other up.

But that was only one kind of torment suffered in the name of Marathon. We also have “read-a-thon,” “eat-a-thon,” “walk-a-thon,” – and, in the world of advertising, where they love to play with words for commercial purposes, we naturally have the “sale-a-thon,” “comput-a-thon,”“drink-a-thon,” and “swap-a-thon.”

And the little Greek town of Marathon is still there, deriving whatever benefit it can from visiting tourists, scholars, and archaeologists who drop in to partake of its historic reputation and ancient ruins. 

The great English poet, George Gordon – Lord Byron – who died in Greece in 1824, had taken up the cause of freeing that land from the rule of the Ottoman Turks, who had controlled it for hundreds of years. In a famous stanza, he wrote:

The mountains look on Marathon –
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.
In case you were wondering, the name Marathon is also (in Greek) that of an edible herb which we call Fennel, which grows around the Mediterranean.

Since the development of very accurate timepieces, measurements of human speed have become a matter of fractions of a second. I can remember a time when nobody had yet run a 4-minute mile, and it was considered an almost impossible record to reach. I was still living in England on May 6, 1954, when that record was broken by an Englishman, Roger Bannister. His time was 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. Of course, he made his country very proud (although the record didn’t stay his for long). But he was a doctor, a neurologist – and he always said that he considered his achievements in Medicine more important than his track record.

Another hero of running was Jim Fixx, who in 1977 published The Complete Book of Running, which started what was almost a craze for that activity. Overnight, it seemed, the sight of someone jogging in the street was no longer a rarity. It was, of course, supposed to promote better health – but unfortunately, in 1984, Jim Fixx himself died while running. It was a sudden heart attack – and he was only 52.  


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