This is what has changed. A middle-aged computer teacher at a neighborhood rec center who never had run a marathon—and finished Athens in 4:34—is the template of the modern marathon runner.
Why couldn't Pheidippides have died here?
—FRANK SHORTER, 22 miles into his first marathon, in 1971
is 76 now. He ran New York for the final time last year and didn't "win" then, either. (He finished in 4:06.) He had fielded that naive question about winning 32 years ago, in the middle of the so-called golden age of running. Two years earlier 25,000 runners had completed marathons in the U.S. By 1980 the number would increase to 143,000. In 2009, according to Running USA, there were 467,000 marathon finishers, a 9.9% jump over the previous year. More than 30 U.S. marathons made their debuts in 2009, in cities as muscular as Pittsburgh and as modest as Kenosha, Wis. Every town with asphalt seems to want one. In spite of the balky economy, or maybe because of it—the sport's cost is the price of a pair of running shoes—these are the good old days of marathoning.
There is a thriving marathon tourism industry catering to the likes of the Athens runners, who hailed from 88 countries that weren't Greece. Three days before the race, representatives were stationed outside the airport baggage claim area: Marathon Tours and Travel, from Boston; Ali Schneider Marathonreisen, from Germany; Apostolos Greek Tours, from Denver. The tourists filtered out of baggage claim in light jackets and long-sleeved T-shirts that advertised their travels like stickers on old steamer trunks. Boston. Stockholm. Lake Tahoe. Apple Hill Harvest Run. Boston again. San Francisco. Berlin. New York. San Diego. More Boston. Five days later some of the same runners were back at airport check-in kiosks, this time in blue ATHENS CLASSIC MARATHON shirts. The 9,500 foreign marathon runners were leaving with another line on their résumés, another check on the bucket list and often something more profound.
Burfoot would realize his ambitions. Some, anyway. He finished his first family marathon, crossing the line with his distinctly nonrunning son, Daniel. Pheidippides's lesser-known girlfriend ... well, that ending was as unforeseen as the nearly milelong charge of the Athenian hoplites. In the early going Negrón had needed to use approximately every third toilet along Marathon Avenue, and at some point her costumed messenger forged on without her. Amby envisioned Cristina making up time and crossing the line with him and Daniel. She did catch up, but she blew past them with 500 meters left. Miscommunication, apparently. As for the "in sickness and in health" part of the wedding vows....
Negrón had fallen in with Jennifer Shramo around the 20-mile mark. Shramo "coaches" for Team in Training, which assists people with training for endurance events and raises money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She has been a den mother to 500 entrants in more than 30 marathons since 2000; not one of her runners has failed to finish. She grabbed salt from her belt pack, instructed the queasy Negrón to take it with a little water and told her she would soon feel better. She did. When Negrón crossed the finish line, two minutes ahead of Amby, she burst into tears and hugged Shramo.
Shramo was leading a group that had entered independently of Team in Training, a 17-member troupe dubbed Greece Lightning that also was raising money for cancer research. Gail Stephens was a Greece Lightning runner, or more precisely, a walker. She is the sister of former Olympic swimmer Brian Goodell, the men's 400- and 1,500-meter freestyle champion at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. Stephens was a registered nurse working short-stay procedures in her hometown of Mission Viejo, Calif., on May 21, 2004, when she phoned the lab for the results to her own blood test and learned she was more acutely ill than any of her patients. The diagnosis was leukemia. She was 47. Before she turned 50 she did a triathlon, cycled 100 miles and entered the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco. "The only reason I'm alive are the clinical trials I'm on and the research the Leukemia Society has supported," says Stephens, a former UCLA swimmer. Her cancer is being managed but is not in total remission.
The sun was dipping in the Athens sky when Stephens and partner Doug Kemp, who had dedicated each of the 42 kilometers to someone they knew with leukemia or lymphoma, walked hand in hand into the emptying Panathinaiko Stadium. Her lips smiled, her eyes watered. Almost laughing. Almost crying. She looked like she could make a rainbow. "I have about one third fewer red blood cells than everyone out here, so it's a little difficult for me," Stephens said as she searched the back straight for her medal. "I understand there are things I can't do anymore." Completing a marathon is not one.