“So much history in just 13.1 miles!”: Racing To Go Back

In April of 2019, I stood at the starting line of the Boston Marathon. In an effort to distract myself from the impending doom of Heartbreak Hill, I eavesdropped on the conversation between two runners who stood behind me. One boasted that he began running marathons to travel and to see beautiful places and landscapes, declaring, “The most beautiful marathon is for sure the Avenue of the Giants Marathon amongst the redwood trees in Northern California.” I thought to myself, “Ah-ha! I have read this before!” Not long after, the race gun went off and I ran away with the confirmation of a hunch I had based on my research: distance runners travel for unique race experiences, and to observe landscapes and historic spaces.

In a 1984 Sports Illustrated article, writer and runner Daniel Baughman claimed he had finally found the ideal race: The Avenue of the Giants Marathon in Northern California’s Humboldt County. Baughman lauded the terrain and the natural world, and particularly called out the redwood trees. Within “the walls and canopy of huge, red barked, fire-scarred, laceleafed trees,” Baughman was not only reminded of his youth—he grew up in Hawaii surfing on redwood boards—but the run also connected him to the historic elements of the redwoods. “The first positively identified redwood fossils date back to almost 130 million years,” he declared, “so these trees were a living link to a time before the continents were formed, when flying reptiles circled overhead and dinosaurs ruled the land.” The race’s unique landscape gave Baughman access, he claimed, to the natural world’s past and provided him with an archaic experience that severed him from the man-made world.[1]

Daniel Baughman and the random Boston Marathon runner are not isolated examples of runners who travel to races with intentions beyond that of racing, and the scope of space reaches far past Humboldt County. The Bird-In-Half Marathon in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania promotes the area’s scenic landscape and the chance for runners to observe an “authentic” Amish experience. In an effort to attract runners by extolling the archaic and pastoral attributes of the area, the race website promises sights of “Rolling hills, grazing cattle, horse-drawn buggies.” Continuing, “It’s hard to say which view is the most celebrated on the BIH course. Many runners are wowed when they enter ‘The Valley of No Wires,’ an area of Lancaster County completely off the grid and experienced by few outside the Plain Community.”

In what is a peculiar incentive to register for the Bird-In-Hand Half Marathon as well as the Garden Spot Village Half Marathon, runners who complete both races take home their very own Road Apple Award (yes, road apples are the piles of horse poop left behind by horses pulling Amish carriages). The award is actual, sanitized, purified, and petrified horse poop. One recipient from Baltimore proclaimed, “It was the most awesome feeling getting my Road Apple Award. I felt like I had won an Oscar.” The same participant also enjoyed running through cornfields, running with an “Amish pacer,” and was impressed that “there were Amish people manning the water tables.” At times, he was fortunate enough to share the road with horses and buggies.[2]

View looking out from the Conewago recreation trail in Lancaster County, PA. Photo of the area’s scenery along the Lancaster-Lebanon County line, taken by author in June 2020.
[Image description: A long stretch of a vacant road with green farmland and trees to both the right and left.]

For runners interested in more than historic and scenic landscapes, or the romanticized image of an antiquated people, the Gettysburg North-South Marathon and Gettysburg Blue-Gray Half Marathon offer athletes an unusual glimpse into Civil War history. “Run Amongst History,” “A Historic Course,” and “Run where the North battled the South,” are pithy appeals for runners to register for the Gettysburg events. And the slogans work. Runners actually sign up to represent the Blue/North or the Gray/South as they race along the course through the East Calvary Fields section of the Gettysburg National Military Park. Runners also take the time to think about the layout of the course and how it might align with the historic experience they wish to receive. One runner wrote of the course, “Before signing up for the race, I reviewed the course map and noticed this does not run through the main battlefields where most of the tourists flock, but rather takes you on a 13-mile journey through, what I feel, is a neglected part of this historical area,” while another lamented, “I liked the course, but of course would have wanted to be in more of the battlefield.” Runners drive from miles away for this bizarre historical experience that is not quite reenactment, not quite a jog through the countryside, and not quite a battlefield tour.

Abraham Lincoln imagined as a half-marathoner. Image retrieved from the Lincoln Presidential Half Marathon registration website.
[Image description: Cartoon/sketch figure of Abraham Lincoln wearing athletic apparel; featuring a sweatband with the number sixteen around his head and what appears to be either a t-shirt or racing singlet.]

The Lincoln Presidential Half Marathon might attract history buffs before it attracts runners. The course description on the race website states, “The race starts and finishes at the Old State Capitol where Lincoln gave his famous House Divided speech. Just across the plaza from the Capitol, within the first quarter mile of the race, is the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices. This is the only building still standing where Lincoln practiced law during his 25-year career. Not even a mile into the race, runners go back in time for two blocks, passing by the only home Abraham Lincoln ever owned,” and so on. Clearly, race directors designed the course in a manner that gives runners the opportunity to sight-see as they complete the half marathon. In addition, instead of the typical starting gun, the race boasts Civil War re-enactors who shoot off musket guns. And the luckiest of runners get the chance to cross the finish line hand-in-hand with an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. As one runner proclaimed, “So much history in just 13.1 miles!”

In 1979, at the height of the distance running boom in the United States, the Washington Post observed, “Running has been hyped and heralded as the sport that requires nothing and no one.”[3] Yet, runners who travel and plan weekends around a race don’t simply step out of their front door for fresh air. They have the time, money, and desire to make these race weekends happen. And though some runners might seek an archaic experience, one that heralds them as environmentalists who desire a world untouched by modernity, such a “back to nature” ethos is contradictory in the means of attaining such desires.[4]

Themed races reveal a more complicated story. The Avenue of the Giants Marathon, the Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon, the Gettysburg Festival of Races, and the Lincoln Presidential Half Marathon highlight not only the ways in which the public seek to engage with history, but what types of history are deemed important and worth experiencing. Although these races are romantic and tacky expressions of particular time periods and events, they do show that the public is, in some way, thinking about history. Whether it be the desire to run an environmentally idealized course, or whether it be the observation of historic sites like buildings and battlefields, these are all aspects of history that runners, though maybe unknowingly, have grappled with.

As for the oldest annual marathon, the Boston Marathon, it is one of the most competitive marathons in the world and runners must run a qualifying time to register. The Boston Athletic Association does not market the race as a themed-tourist trap marathon, but that doesn’t mean the city doesn’t rally around its history and the influx of runners who become tourists. Runners sometimes train for years to qualify and travel internationally to experience the race and its atmosphere, one created by runners and spectators alike who have established their own touristy ambiance. What would the Boston Marathon be if New Englanders chose not to tailgate on their front lawns while blasting Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” as runners pass by? Don’t forget to purchase a marathon themed t-shirt with an image of the famed Citgo sign from a street vendor! And what is better than a post-race grub fest at the historic Quincy Market?

[1] Michael Baughman, “A Marathon Search for the Perfect Race Ends Among Ancient Redwoods,” Sports Illustrated (April 9, 1984).

[2] For a more intimate look at running in Lancaster County, see Bard Yasso and Steve Friedman’s “Running with the Amish,” Runners World (February 27, 2012).

[3] Jane Leavy and Susan Okie, “The Runner: Phenomenon Of the ‘70s,” The Washington Post (September 30, 1979).

[4] For an excellent overview of the race, class, and gender dynamics that surround running, see “Video: How Running’s White Origins Led To The Dangers of ‘Running While Black,’” NPR (July 18, 2020). For background on the political meanings behind the emergence of the distance running boom, see Aaron Haberman’s “Thousands of Solitary Runners Come Together: Individualism and Communitarianism in the 1970s Running Boom,” Journal of Sports History 44, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 35-49. For more on fitness culture and why people chose to run in the postwar era, see Shelly McKenzie’s, Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2013).

*Cover image: A decorated Quincy Market in Boston, Massachusetts on the day of the Boston Marathon in 2019. Photo by author.

[Cover image description: a group of people gathered around the front of a market complex on a crisp, blue-skied day. The building boats a large banner that reads “Welcome Runners,” and hangs between two of the building’s columns. Two vertical banners hang on the columns themselves.]