Lessons of the Marathon

Posted on April 3, 2018

Imagine a race of over 500 miles. It is hard to fathom. And yet in 1983 in Australia they announced an ultra-marathon of 543.7 miles between the cities of Sydney and Melbourne. 150 world-class runners arrived to take part in this historic event, excited to test their mettle against the world’s best. On the day of the race, 61-year-old Cliff Young approached the registration table wearing overalls and galoshes over his work boots. People assumed he was there to watch, but Cliff insisted that he had come to take part in the race. Eventually the incredulous staff issued him the number 64 and as he took his place on the starting line he stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the other runners with their chiseled bodies, decked out in running gear. When the race began those in the crowd who had been snickering at Cliff’s appearance began laughing as the 61 year old was left behind by all of the other runners setting off at a significantly faster pace. Cliff didn’t even seem to be running, it would be more accurate to describe his movement as a leisurely, odd shuffle. All of Australia was glued to their television screens fearing that this old man would kill himself trying to complete the arduous race. 5 days, 15 hours and 4 minutes later, Cliff Young came shuffling across the finish line in Melbourne, winning the ultra-marathon not by a few seconds or minutes, but 9 hours and 56 minutes before the next runner would complete the race. Most ultra-marathon competitors run for 18 hours and then sleep for 6 hours, repeating the punishing routine. But no one told Cliff that he was supposed to take a break. He just kept shuffling along 24 hours a day without stopping to sleep. Cliff attributed his success to the experiences he had on his family farm. Unable to afford horses or tractors when a storm was coming he would have to cover 2,000 acres to gather in all of the sheep; sometimes it would take two or three days, but he always caught them all. When he won the race he was surprised to learn that there was a $10,000 prize, and having not entered the race with prize money in mind he distributed the winnings among a number of the athletes who came in after him. People studied Cliff’s bizarre running style and it lead to many long distance runners adopting what has become known as the “Young shuffle” due to its aerodynamic and energy efficiency.1 Setting such an inspiring example, it is no surprise that following his victory Cliff Young became an Australian celebrity. 1 The sources for the story of Cliff Young are http://drdavidlallen.com/devotional/my-favoritesermon-illustration-for-hebrews-121-3-cliff-young-the-australian-ultra-marathon/, https://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/11/13/1068674320418.html, and https://elitefeet.com/the-legend-of-cliff-young I can’t imagine running from this bimah up to my office let alone completing a marathon of 26 miles and I can’t even conceive of an endurance race of over 500 miles. Although I am intrigued how many steps Cliff Young would have accumulated if he had a fitbit to track them. There is something about long distance and marathon runners that sparks the imagination. We mere mortals are in awe of the physical effort and dedication it takes to complete a race of this magnitude. As a child I remember standing on the side of the London Marathon course in 1985 as we cheered my father on as he ran the marathon to raise money for a children’s cancer ward at a major London hospital. We watched as an runners from across the world some decked out in top of the range running gear and others dressed as chickens, superheroes and in various other weird and wonderful costumes passed us by. And the marathon itself was just the culmination, there were months of training in advance of the day, with ever increasing distance runs undertaken so that my dad would be ready to compete. There are so many lessons that can be taken from the marathon and in our world where all too often the news is bad; the marathon offers us an opportunity to celebrate what is truly good. Very few events bring people together in the way that the marathon does, it really is one of the moments where everyone from across our society and even the world is represented. When I was looking at the statistics from last year’s marathon there were entrants from 96 countries making it a truly international affair. Those who participated spanned the ages, so that last year 7 of the people who completed the race were in the over 80’s category. And it is a race that is open to all so that entrants include those with physical disabilities of the finishers 54 were visually impaired, 38 were mobility impaired, 53 participated in wheelchairs and 28 with handcycles. The inclusion of all people is great, but what elevates it to an even higher level is that apart from the elite athletes these people aren’t there competing against one another. Instead, more often than not they are supporting each other, the battle is with themselves and the triumph comes not just from crossing the finish line, but from completing the course amidst this inspiring sea of people. In our world all too often it is us against them, or my success comes at your expense. The marathon reminds us that we can all triumph together rather than at the expense of one another. And then there is the example which all of the participants set for us in terms of dedication and commitment, endurance and strength. Ever increasingly we live in an instant gratification society, where we expect our needs to be met instantaneously, and if we have to wait, even a moment, then we move on to the next thing. None of those people who will compete on Monday got out of bed that morning and on a whim decided to run in the Boston marathon; they have spent months, if not years, preparing themselves for the grueling task that lies ahead. They have been dedicated in their pursuit of this dream, knowing, just as our ancestors did, that one does not reach the Promised Land overnight, instead the journey requires time and effort. These runners also remind us that often the only barriers to what we can achieve are those barriers that we ourselves erect. Many of those competing in the marathon are not seasoned athletes or runners, for some at the beginning of their journey running a mile was a challenge. But they have pushed their bodies to ever increasing heights, knowing that the power we possess inside ourselves is always greater than the obstacles that are placed before us. In the words that we recited at Passover, if the marathon only brought people together and showed us the power we each possess – dayenu – it would be enough, but then people take this 26 mile race as an opportunity to do good and bring blessing into the world. In 2016 over $30 million was raised by people participating in the Boston marathon. Participants ran on behalf of over 200 non-profit organizations ensuring that their hard work would not just be rewarded with the satisfaction of crossing the finish line but would contribute to the well being of so many other people and causes. In the Mishanh we read that Ben Azzai said run to do a mitzvah;2 with the marathon the running itself, raising money for so many worthy charities becomes the mitzvah. Cliff Young inspired so many with his participation in a race across Australia, but all of our runners coming to our city of Boston this weekend set an inspirational example of what is possible in our world. If you look up the reason why a marathon is 26 miles the answers that you read will provide a link back to Greek history and the legend of an ancient Greek messenger who raced from Marathon to Athens with news of an important Greek victory over an invading army of Persians. But his run was 40 kilometers, or 25 miles. So the story suggests that at the 1908 Olympics in London Queen Alexandra requested the race start on the lawn of Windsor Castle so that the youngest Royals could watch from the window of their nursery, with the finish line 26.2 miles away at the Olympic stadium.3 I think the real reason that a marathon is 26 miles long is because the numerical value of God’s divine name Adonai, is yud plus hay plus vav plus hay, which is 10+5+6+5 for a total of 26. When these runners participate in the marathon; coming together from across the globe and society, demonstrating our human strength, and running to do good in this world, they bring God’s Divine presence down to dwell amongst us. And so tonight we now call up all of the runners who are taking part in the Boston Marathon or any of the related races that are held as part of the event. And I know that alongside the athletes who are joining us up here on the bimah in person we have a number of competitors who are watching via the livestream to receive their blessing. It might surprise you but there is no actual blessing or prayer for marathon runners in our siddur. But there are prayers and texts that can form the basis of our prayer today. 2 Mishnah Avot 4:2 3 https://www.history.com/news/ask-history/why-is-a-marathon-26-2-miles Mi Shebeirach Avoteinu Avrahm Yitzhak veYaakov, veImoteinu Sarah, Rivkah, Leah veRachel; ken Yevarech et kol retzei hamaraton May the one who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel bless all of these runners. In the words of our liturgy we give thanks to God for the health of their bodies. asher yatsar et haadam b’chochma, uvara vo nkavim nkavim, chalulim chalulim. Galui vyadua lifnei chissei chvodecha she’im yipateiach echad meihem, o’yisateim echad meihem, iefshar l’hitkayyeim v’la’amod velarutz l’fanecha. 4 You have made each of us with wisdom. You have created the human body with veins, arteries, structures and organs, each of which much function properly for our survival allowing us to stand and run before you. Yehuda ben Tema omer havei az kenamar, vekol kenesher, veratz ketzvi, vegiboor ke’ari, laasot retzon avicha shebashamayim velesayem haetgar sh’lifneichem In the words of Rabbi Judah ben Tema may you be as bold as a leapord, as swift as an eagle, as fleet as a hart and strong as a lion to the do the will of God who is in Heaven5 and to complete this challenge before you. We pray that you will take inspiration from our ancestors who came before us. Like Joshua and Caleb may you have the strength of dedication and commitment to complete a journey from the narrow place to your Promised land.6 Like Nachshon ben Aminadav may you have the courage and fortitude to continue putting one foot in front of the other, stepping forward with faith that you can complete the task.7 Like Samson may you be imbued with strength, so that even when feeling adversity the power within allows you to overcome all walls that stand before you.8 And like Miriam may you feel the support of a community who stands together with you supporting you with words and with song.9 Anachnu nevarech sh’harechovot ipatchu lifneichem, vehatmicha mehakehillah yamritzu etchem, vegufotechem yichazku neged haetgarim sh’lifneichem. We pray that the roads open up before you, that the support of your community inspires you and that your bodies endure through the miles that are ahead Baruch attah Adonai, rofei chol basar, umafli la’asot10 hamechazek otam. We thank you, G-d, who heals all creatures and performs wonders and endows the human body with strength beyond our expectations. Venomar – And let us say Amen. 4 This is taken from the morning liturgy where we thank God for the gift of our bodies. 5 This quote is from Mishnah Avot 5:20 6 Joshua and Caleb were the only Israelites who were permitted to enter the Promised Land from the generation who left Egypt (Numbers 13- 14). 7 The Talmud suggests that when the Israelites stood on the banks of the Sea waiting for it to part, Nachshon had the faith to step forward, and when he reached in up to his neck it parted in honor of him (Talmud Sotah 37a) 8 Samson is known to have had “super-human” strength and in the final story he brought the walls down of the Philistine house where he was held (Judges 14-16) 9 After Israel crossed the Sea, Miriam led the women in song and dance (Exodus 15:20-21) and as we read her story we get a sense of the connection she had with the community. 10 This is the concluding blessing in the prayer quoted before from the morning liturgy.