This past Sunday 37,936 people ran 26.22 miles through parts of all five boroughs of New York City from Staten Island to Central Park, through parts of all five boroughs. The marathon has taken place on the first Sunday of November every year since 1970, and this year Jelena Prokopcuka won the women’s division with a time of 2:25:05, M. Gomes dos Santos won the men’s division clocking in at 2:09:58, and the wheelchair divisions male and female winners were Stephen Kiogora (2:10:06) and Paul Tergat (2:10:10).
I don’t really care about marathons very much, but it’s a major event and I’ve been thinking about it, and it occurred to me a couple of days ago that one might very reasonably look at marathons as performance art.
The Marathon is, of course, nominally a race, a competition, but only a handful of participants are actually running to win. Winning times over the years vary by only a couple of minutes, and in this year’s New York marathon Lance Armstrong, professional athlete, finished 856th with a time of 2:59:36, nearly 50% longer than the winning time in the men’s division. With winning out of the question, most people run marathons for the experience of having done it — and a 26.22 mile run must be quite an experience. With so many people running for the sake of the experience, how many of the spectators are watching for the sake of seeing a competition with a winner and how many for the experience of seeing so many people engaged in so extreme a feat of physical endurance? I would suggest that most are primarily looking for the latter — thus, it’s primarily an aesthetic rather than a competetive experience for most of the participants and most of the spectators.
Now factor in the origins of the event. In 490 B.C. a small army of Athenians and Plataens defeated a much larger force of Persians at Marathon. Legend has it that after the battle a Greek soldier named Pheidippides ran 21.4 miles nonstop from the battlefield to Athens, where he proclaimed “Νενικήκαμεν!” — “We were victorious!” The modern Marathon race is a tribute to this story, begun at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Unfortunately, the legend seems to be just that, a legend — the best available evidence is that Pheidippides was a professional long-distance runner who actually ran about 153 miles from Athens to Sparta in two days (perhap an even more impressive feat) to request reinforcements before the battle at Marathon. The important thing here is that the modern marathon race is a reenactment — and in fact it is a “reenactment” of a mythological rather than historical event. Ultimately, the performative aspects of the modern marathon are, I think, greater than the competetive aspects.
And performance of physical feats as art can be seen in any number of places. Musical virtuosity is fundamentally about the musician performing the feat of making his or her instrument do things at the very edge of human and instrumental capacity. Consider Tehching Hsieh’s “One Year” performance art pieces — from April 11th 1980 to April 11th 1981, for example, he punched a time clock every hour. And, finally, take a look at Tom Johnson’s description of Charlemagne Palestine’s 1977 performance of his “The Lower Depths: Descending/Ascending” in the Village Voice:
“It hurts to play the piano for an extended time the way Palestine does. I tried it once, and found to my dismay that my muscles and bones began to ache after only a couple of minutes. Now, granted, one could become conditioned to this kind of physical task and build up endurance, but ultimately the situation must be like long-distance running. One can get in condition and build endurance to a point, but beyond that point, conditioning is mostly just a matter of getting used to the pain. Palestine drinks a lot of cognac and smokes a lot of clove-scented Indonesian cigarettes when he presents a program like this, and no doubt these substances help to deaden the pain a bit, but ultimately only sheer determination could get anyone through such an ordeal.”