- Commentary: The Allure of the Tortoise
Various proverbs and maxims insist that life and everything in it, from investing to political elections, is a marathon and not a sprint. In fact, Western culture has seemed particularly fascinated by steady endurance work as reflected in Aesop’s first-century B.C. fable about the Tortoise and the Hare. In that well-known story, the flashy, quick, and cocky hare is put to shame by the consistent, plodding tortoise during a race of undefined distance. The hare, of course, is not beaten out by speed but rather simply by focus: the hare took a nap, got some breakfast, got distracted, and got beaten. Intriguingly though, the message from the story is not just to stay focused with eyes on the prize but also to value the consistency of perpetual movement. The moral seems to be that for anything involving distance over time or space, slow and steady wins the race. Although Aesop appears not to have defined the length of the race, it was long enough for the poor hare to lose his way, metaphorically speaking. The story reflects the reward of mental perseverance in overcoming a physical challenge that allows those less speedy to win the day. Even in the modern world, people remain fascinated by the combination of body, mind, and competition in endurance events and are especially intrigued by those who are successful in those pursuits.
The three essays in this issue reflect that fascination. Theresa Walton and Susan Birrell explore the intertexual relationship between Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s summit of Mt. Everest in 1953 and Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile in 1954.1 Shelley Lucas examines the historical evolution of women’s cycling and the challenges [End Page 259] the racers faced in attempting to increase the distances of the road races. Laura Chase considers the development of weight divisions in distance running, particularly the Clydesdale movement in marathon events. Each of these essays focuses on the success athletes have had in challenging themselves and overcoming what, for most people, are ordinary boundaries.
Borrowing a page from Walton and Birrell’s methodology and using intertexuality theory, these manuscripts speak to each other and, together, create a broader picture of what endurance sports mean to people, why they fascinate the audience, and why they lure the participant into going beyond the usual distance. The single biggest commonality is the element of competition. This competition is always more complicated than simply beating a clock, and for each athlete or group of athletes, the competition is multi-pronged. Linked to that sense of competition is the lure of the challenge itself.
For example Tenzing and Hillary were competing with an extremely harsh environment with bitter cold, high winds, beyond challenging terrain, and limited oxygen. They were also competing with themselves—combining physical skills, technical knowledge, and psychological focus. They competed indirectly with others: Hillary and Tenzing are remembered sixty years later because they were the first to summit Mt. Everest and to bring back photographic proof that they had done so. George Mallory and Andrew Irvine might have summitted in 1924, but neither survived that last climb and so those climbers survive in cultural memory largely because of the mystery of whether they might actually have been first. Walton and Birrell remind us that Tenzing and Hillary were more directly competing with the Swiss to be first to summit and survive, waiting while the Swiss failed to reach the summit in 1952 by a mere 800 feet. The Swiss team of four who officially became the second group to climb the mountain in 1956 seem lost to the general American population perhaps because they were not Anglo and perhaps because they were not first. Similarly Roger Bannister was competing not just against the clock to be the first to run a sub-four-minute mile but also with himself. Being the first to do something requires, if not the cockiness of Aesop’s hare, at least the confidence that the thing can be done, despite any conventional wisdom that it cannot. Further, Bannister was competing with other runners to break the mile...