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Who Exactly First Walked Fast Enough So the Rest of Us Could Run?

Obviously, we’ve been fleeing predators at a brisk pace forever. But when did running transcend survival instinct and turn into a sport?

From just about any rational perspective, running is the most practical form of exercise a person can engage in. Pretty much anyone is capable of doing it, and the adaptability of running training is also second to none: If you want to increase the intensity of your training, you can simply pick up the pace and run faster, and if accelerating your pace doesn’t provide you with the challenge you’re seeking, you can vary your terrain by charting out a new course through your city to explore.

Moreover, if your sport takes place on solid ground and doesn’t involve the direct intrusion of water, in either its solid (hockey, speed skating, etc.) or liquid forms (swimming, water polo, etc.), being trained to run will probably make you measurably better at playing it, and even an asset to your beer-league softball team. After all, there’s a reason why many of the most active position players in football are advised to join their high school track and field or cross-country teams once football season reaches its conclusion.

When did people start competing in races?

I could give you the cop-out answer and say, “From time immemorial,” but that would mean taking the easy way out. Historians have claimed that the Tailteann Games of ancient Ireland consisted of running events as early as 1829 B.C. However, the precise length of these runs is unknown. The same goes for whether or not these runs were held for the sake of athletic competition, or as an informal religious ritual. 

Where formal athletic competition is concerned, our best available evidence supports the position that the three oldest Olympic events were all running events, and that either four or five (depending on how you classify chariot racing) of the first nine Olympic events ever introduced involved some form of running. All of these events appear to have been firmly established between 776 B.C. and 520 B.C.

Among the most interesting components to these early Olympic racing events is that they were built around war-related skills. The Stadion — the earliest of all Olympic events — was a sprinting event of roughly 200 meters. By contrast, the Doclichos, which was the distance event contested at those ancient games, was 5,000 meters (aka a 5k). 

The most logical takeaway is that the ancient Greeks didn’t consider a run further than 5,000 meters to be of measurable value for the purposes of assessing war-readiness or battle-preparedness. This makes a level of sense, since I can imagine it would never be tactically advantageous to order your armor-laden troops to run more than three miles at a time to reach a battlefield, recognizing that those warriors would be exhausted and vulnerable once they arrived. 

Speaking of which, the ancient Greeks also had an Olympic event designed to test a soldier’s readiness for that specific instance: The Hoplitodromos. After donning either shin guards and a shield, or a helmet and a shield, the competitors would race 350 to 400 meters. This distance probably reflects the most reasonable estimate for how far armored soldiers would be expected to sprint in most battle situations.

When did people begin training specifically to run?

As long as organized races have been in existence, it makes logical sense that athletes have trained specifically for the sake of improving their performances in those races. The Bible makes multiple allusions to the practice of training for races, most notably in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, which states, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.” Clearly, the use of this analogy in a letter written to a Greece-based church suggests that the practice of training for specific races was well-established during ancient times.

When we start looking at contemporary athletic training, an interesting story comes to mind regarding the first running of a modern marathon at the 1896 Olympic Games. This event was won by Spyridon Louis of Greece, who covered the 26.2 course in two hours, 58 minutes and drank either a glass of either wine or Cognac in the middle of the race

The lone U.S. entrant in the race was Arthur Blake, who captured the silver medal in the 1,500 meters and missed out on gold in that event by less than half a second. Interestingly, he failed to finish the marathon — as did a total of eight of the race’s 17 entrants — with the reason stated in The Atlanta Constitution that he had never come close to training to run over such a punishing distance, having never run more than 15 miles at one time in his life. Essentially, until the marathon hit the radar of Americans as an event of prestige, there was no reason for anyone to train to run in one.

Okay, but aside from athletes and soldiers, when did ordinary people begin to run simply for the sake of improving their own health?

Credit for jogging as an everyday exercise can be laid squarely at the feet of two people: Arthur Lydiard and Bill Bowerman. 

Lydiard was a legendary running coach who pioneered the practice of jogging as a recreational fitness pursuit with a group of New Zealand gentlemen during the summer of 1962. From there, legendary American track and field coach (and Nike co-founder) Bill Bowerman visited Lydiard’s program, returned to the U.S. to create a similar program and then published the 90-page book Jogging, which sold more than one million copies and sparked the jogging boom here.

There you have it: Those are the origins of running as both a competitive sport, and as a recreational fitness activity. Any time you engage in a run of any distance, either competitively, or for training purposes, you’re connecting with members of a runners’ fraternity with a history that stretches back at least two dozen centuries. Perhaps the thoughts of them cheering you on from the heavens will provide you with the psychological boost you need to train for your next (or first) 5K, even if more than half of them would be left wondering why you aren’t also wearing body armor and a shield while you train.