3 Historical Statement Runs That Left A Lasting Impression
While many (perhaps most?) of us run to improve our own mental, physical and/or emotional well-being, a number of individuals have historically used running to make statements with far-reaching consequences. Here are the stories of three such inspirational runners who, through lacing up, left a lasting impression on society as a whole.
Before being inaugurated as South Africa‘s first fully representative, democratic president in 1994, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison after being arrested for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government. During those 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela spent a big chunk of his time doing hard physical labor in quarries, breaking big rocks into gravel with hand-held implements. It is speculated that this kind of manual labor was used to “break” prisoners and to dictate the terms of their existence. But Mandela was determined to continue to be in command of his own self.
So, in contrast to what one might expect of someone who spent their days doing hard physical labor, Mandela continued with his pre-prison fitness routine. Even if it meant completing 45-minute runs by running on the spot in his cramped prison cell. In his memoir, Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela wrote: “On Monday through Thursday, I would do stationary running in my cell in the morning for up to forty-five minutes. I would also perform one hundred fingertip push-ups, two hundred sit-ups, fifty deep knee-bends, and various other calisthenics”.
And while, in part, this was thought to be a show of resistance against the state and his prison wardens, Mandela also had an excellent understanding of the cognitive benefits of physical exercise. “Exercise dissipates tension, and tension is the enemy of serenity. I found that I worked better and thought more clearly when I was in good physical condition, and so training became one of the inflexible disciplines of my life. In prison, having an outlet for my frustrations was absolutely essential,” Mandela wrote.
After being released from prison in 1990, Mandela was held in deep respect by most South Africans and fondly referred to as Madiba, which means “Father of the Nation”. He was furthermore also regarded as an international icon of social justice and received more than 250 honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize.
Madiba passed away in 2013 at the age of 95.
Four years after losing a leg to cancer, 22-year old Terry Fox embarked on what some believed to be a quixotic quest. Convinced that he’d won his own battle against cancer, he aimed to raise C$1 million to fight the disease by running across Canada. But he also ran with another goal in mind: To show that “a man is not less because he has lost a leg, indeed, he may be more”.
Starting at St. Johns, Newfoundland in 1980, Fox ran through ice storms, gale-force winds, intense heat, and heavy rain, completing close to a marathon each day for 143 days. He collected a total of C$1.7 million during this “Marathon of Hope”, which was tragically cut short at Thunder Bay after 3,339 miles. Here Fox learned that his cancer had returned and spread to his lungs, forcing him to cut his quest short and head home for treatment. He passed away in 1981, one month before his 23rd birthday.
And while Fox’s own attempt at raising money for cancer research was cut short, his legacy still lives on today. It is estimated that more than C$750 million has been raised through the annual Terry Fox Run that takes place in more than 60 countries. And, just like he’d hoped, he’s also changed the way in which people view individuals with disabilities. In addition to demonstrating that there are no limits to what an amputee can do, Fox also showed that, while cancer claimed his leg, his spirit was unbreakable.
With the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of Katherine Switzer’s historical first official female completion of the Boston Marathon in 1967, Bobbi Gibb’s equally important statement run the year before that often goes unnoticed. An avid long-distance runner who felt that running gave her “this feeling of joy and openness….of being alive”, Gibbs officially entered the 1966 race. But, despite being well-prepared for the event, she received a stinging rejection letter. In that letter, Gibb was told that “women are not physiologically able to run a marathon, and furthermore, women are not allowed to run more than 1.5 miles in a race.” A reply that only fueled her passion even more.
So on the morning of the 1966 Boston Marathon, Gibb hid in the bushes near the starting line of the race, afraid that she’d be arrested. But once the starting gun fired, she joined the rest of the pack and ended up finishing the race in an impressive 3:21. This time was good enough to beat more than half of the male-only field, but also to prove what she’d believed all along: That women could compete in long-distance running and do it well too. “Women were living in a little box, and I couldn’t live like that … I wanted to do whatever I could to change that and try to inspire other people to think outside that box.”
And while Gibb wasn’t initially recognized as an official Boston Marathon finisher, she paved the way for thousands of passionate women to earn that right after her.
The greater good
So while running is perceived by many to be a rather “selfish” endeavor, individuals like Mandela, Fox, and Gibb showed that it can also be used for the greater good. Something that thousands of inspirational runners across the globe are continuing to do to this day, each in their own, significant way.
- Bobbi Gibb, Kathrine Switzer Reflect On 'Life-Defining' Boston Marathon, Online publication ,
- The marathon of hope, Online publication ,
- Nelson Mandela on exercise on Robben Island, Online publication ,
- Terry Fox, Online publication ,