Cemetery Run

**Author's note: this week's Herald article was excerpted from a photo essay Donald published on his website last year. See the complete post here on Running and Rambling.

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“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living”
- Cicero (106-43 BC)

One of the most mysterious and fatefully haunted locations in Monterey County also happens to be the destination of one our favorite trail runs.

The “cemetery run,” as we refer to it, takes us approximately 8 miles along the fire roads and single track of Fort Ord, and ultimately to the graveyard of a long forgotten pioneer family. Very little is known about the souls who rest there, and the few visible details only cause further speculation, like a real-life Monterey County ghost story.

The area was once the homestead of the Whitcher (seriously, that’s the name) family in the late 1800s, who vanished almost without a trace towards the end of the 19th century. They occupied this land for nearly 60 years, and once owned thousands of acres. However, unlike other owners of original “rancho” or “adobe” land grants, practically nothing in Monterey County bears their name.

We run up and down two major climbs on our way to the site, passing silent trees that probably knew the Whitchers personally. Their reaching branches seemingly strain to tell us about other explorers of these trails so many years ago. Finally we reach the outskirts of an abandoned military community, and about 100 yards off the main road is our destination: a humble cemetery, only 20’ long by 10’ wide, that is the resting place for five members of the Whitcher family.

Grass grows long in the center of the plot, but the site shows signs of occasional visitation: a wreath on a cross, flowers at its base, and trampled weeds on the perimeter. Below the cross is a marker for Mary H. Pearson, who at age 36, represents the oldest person in the plot. The remaining stones decrease in size according to the age of the deceased. They contain brief, touching hints of the hardships the family experienced:

Ned Eliger Whitcher, November 8, 1862 - April 29, 1879. Ceased breathing.

Floria Elvira Whitcher, July 19, 1866 – February 17, 1875. Returned to God who gave her.

Harry Whitcher, August 5, 1875 - September 16, 1875. Quit acheing.

It’s enough to break your heart, even 130 years removed. Little Harry’s marker is the most heartbreaking, but another is the most mysterious: a small, plain, chipped slab, with nothing more than the initials H.W. No indication if this is another infant, or a pet, or a member of the family who died when the family couldn’t afford a proper tombstone.

The answer might be in the wind, or in the trees ... but when our group of runners visit, neither of them are ever talking. So we ponder the gravesites for a few minutes before it’s time to be on our way.

As the minutes tick away on our return trip, the Whitcher plot is a somber reminder that time is always running out: on our days, on our precious moments shared with those we love, on our very existence. The run back is generally quieter than the journey out, as we contemplate the scene we’ve just visited.

Ideally, those who came before us – even the most downtrodden, star-crossed, and unfortunate souls among them – can live on somehow in those of us who remain here afterwards. We honor the dead by remembering them – and running to the cemetery is our unique way of ensuring that this particular family stays with us for a long time.

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2500 Years

Last spring we made a big fuss about the 25th running of the Big Sur Marathon. It’s a very impressive accomplishment, and our local running community was proud to celebrate the world-class event. Imagine, then, if there were a race that was 100 times older than Big Sur – that would be pretty amazing, right?

Such a race does indeed exist: the Athens Marathon on October 31st, honoring the 2500th anniversary of the world’s first recognized marathon, run by a messenger of the Athenian army in 490 B.C.

According to popular legend – it’s hard to verify how much is actually true – the mighty Persians, with the most formidable military force the world had ever seen, invaded Greece with more than 25,000 soldiers, and were met by the undermanned Athenian army on the plains near a town called Marathon. The 10,000 Athenian soldiers didn’t stand a chance.

However, Greek General Miltiades and his courageous troops had other ideas: they surprised the Persians by going on the offensive, and the Athenians ultimately scored one of the most shocking and decisive battles in world history. As military historian Edward Creasy explains, it “forever broke the spell of Persian invincibility…and secured for mankind the intellectual treasures of Athens, the growth of free institutions, and the liberal enlightenment of the Western World.”

In other words, it was kind of a big deal. But since civilization was more than 2490 years away from cell towers, texting, or Tweeting, news of the triumphant battle was communicated the VERY old-fashioned way: a messenger soldier was dispatched to run from Marathon to Athens to tell his countrymen about the great victory.

You’ve probably heard of the messenger, Pheidippides, whose name is now immortalized in Greek lore. You’re also probably familiar with the message he delivered: Nike, a one-word phrase meaning “victory”. There’s a little shoe company in Oregon that’s made quite a name for themselves with that word.

The end of the story, as you’d expect from the Greeks, isn’t nearly as pleasant: Pheidippides died in the town square immediately after delivering his famous message. And the whole incident would have been forgotten completely if not for the historian Lucian, who came along nearly 700 years later and thought the story deserved to be documented.

Most estimates of Pheidippides's fateful run place it around 24.85 miles, and that distance was used for the first “official” marathon event at the modern Olympic Games, held in Greece in 1896. The course ran from Marathon to Athens, re-tracing the famous messenger’s steps as closely as possible.

In the 1908 London Olympics, King Edward VII wanted the race to start in front of her Windsor Castle home, which was roughly an extra 2 miles from the stadium finish area. The resulting course was 26.2 miles, which is now the officially recognized distance – but the marathon is still recognized as a classically Greek event. In fact, runners from all over the world flock to Athens each year to run the city’s marathon in the footsteps of history.

The race sells out 12,000 entries each year, but a few Monterey County runners are lucky enough to be entered in the 2500th anniversary race later this month. But if you can’t make it this year, don’t worry: the 2501st anniversary will probably be cool as well. And it will be one year more historic.

So if you’re a runner who likes to travel – or a traveler who likes to run – make a point to put the oldest and most famous marathon in the world on your to-do list.

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