The London Marathon

After living in Boston for six years, I'm a bit of a marathon snob. Not that I've ever actually done one myself, it's just that getting (or taking) a Monday off to watch and celebrate the world's most respected road race has left a mark. So when I found out that the London Marathon "“ which has only been around since 1981 "“ was on for this weekend, internally, I sort of said, "Meh."

But the London Marathon, sponsored by Flora, a British margarine company, is a pretty important marathon in its own right. It's got its own history, its own tradition, and its own characters, as well as the fact that its course is plotted through some of London's most historic areas, including Embankment, Parliament, and St. James Park (although the Tower of London portion, which crossed some rough cobblestone terrain, has been rerouted).

Here are a few more interesting facts about the London Marathon:

It started with an article

Believe in the power of the press, because it was an article written by former Olympic champion and British journalist Chris Brasher that prompted the organization of the first London Marathon. In 1979, after running the New York marathon, Brasher penned an article for The Observer, describing the experience in joyful terms as the "greatest folk festival the world has ever seen," and summed up by asking if London could ever pull off something like it. (Of course, Brasher's inspiration for running the marathon himself began, as many, many things in the UK do, with a conversation in a pub.)

London "“ or rather Brasher and a few other like-minded sports enthusiasts "“ rose to the challenge. Two years later, after securing £50,000 in financial backing from Gillette, the London Marathon kicked off, with 6,255 runners crossing the finish line.

london-marathon2.jpgThe winners of that first London Marathon were an American, Dick Beardsley, and a Norwegian, Inge Simonsen, who clasped hands at the finish line and crossed together. In the years since, as the race has grown to more than 35,000 runners annually, only one other American male runner has won the race: Moroccan-American Khalid Khannouchi crossed the finish line with a time of 2:05:38 in 2002. In 2006, Deena Kastor became the first American woman to win the race.

The current sponsor is Flora, however, that will change next year, as Virgin, which seems to have a finger in virtually every industry known to man, takes over for a period of five years and with a goal of raising £250 million for charity. Since its inception, the marathon has raised more than £360 million for charity and is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world's single largest annual fundraising event.

Celebrity runners

Britain has its own cadre of celebrities and a fair few of them have run the London Marathon. Foul-mouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has run the marathon five times; TV presenter and former official model for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Nell McAndrew, has run the marathon at least twice; actors from long-running Brit soap opera EastEnders are perennial Marathoners, with at least one of them popping up every year; and the late reality TV star Jade Goody ran in 2006.

Tradition! Tradition!

As with many charity driven marathons, fancy dress is a long-standing and essential component. Because when you're panting through your 21st mile, you want to look over and see a banana and a dog skipping past you. Runners in fat suits, runners in kilts, and runners in carefully constructed London telephone booth costumes have all crossed the finish line in recent years; one man has even made a tradition of flipping a cooked pancake in a skillet as he runs.

Some runners have made the London Marathon itself their tradition. The Ever Presents are a dwindling group of die-hards who have managed to run the marathon every single year. A group of roughly 22, they're all men who ran the inaugural London Marathon in 1981, and, despite the cruel passage of time, the loss of hair, teeth and stamina, they're still going.


For the non-runners, there's a lengthy tradition of drinking. On the interactive course map provided by the marathon organizers, pub locations are handily indicated with a pint glass icon. And there are a lot of pint glasses. Many of the pubs also run marathon specials, raising money and awareness for various charitable causes "“ so while you never really need a reason to drink, a charitable cause is a good one.

Inspiring stories

By their very nature, marathons are events where inspiring things happen, where people push themselves to their limits and far beyond, often in the name of a good cause.

Michael Watson, a former British boxing champion, was nearly killed in the ring in 1991 when the combination of a devastating uppercut to the chin and subsequent unlucky fall into the ropes put him in a coma for 40 days. After he awoke, Watson was confined to a wheelchair, told he'd never walk again, and had to re-learn how to write and speak. But in 2003, Watson "ran" the London Marathon. Raising money for the Brain and Spine Foundation, Watson walked for two hours each morning and each afternoon, completing the course in six days. He slept in a support bus that followed him and that also carried both his neurosurgeon and Chris Eubanks, the boxer who delivered the nearly fatal uppercut.

For his efforts, Queen Elizabeth awarded him an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2004.

warriors.jpgLast year, six Maasai Warriors ran the marathon, raising awareness about and money for clean drinking water in their rural Tanzanian village. The warriors, who are famed for their ability to run long miles over rough terrain without tiring, said their elders told them that the marathon wouldn't be too difficult a challenge, since they spend their days killing lions and herding cattle (and often fueled by the fresh blood of said cattle). Wearing their traditional clothing and shoes made of old car tires, the warriors finished the race in under 5 and a half hours and raised £114,726; nearly a year after running the marathon, the village now has safe, clean drinking water.

The warriors' visit also prompted a British charity to write up a four-page "guide" for the visiting tribesmen, with helpful hints, such as "Even though some [people on the street] may look like they have a frown on their face, they are very friendly people "“ many of them just work in offices, jobs they don't enjoy, and so they do not smile as much as they should."



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15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
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Getty Images

Fred Rogers—who was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania on March 20, 1928—remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of what would have been his 90th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”


According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.


Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”


Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.


It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.


Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.


Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."


A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.


If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.


Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.


According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.


Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.


It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”


In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.


Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.


In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images
The World's Last Male Northern White Rhino Has Died, But Could He Still Help Save the Species?
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

Following age-related complications, Sudan the northern white rhinoceros was euthanized by a team of vets in Kenya at 45 years old, CNN reports. He was one of only three northern white rhinos left on Earth and the last male of his subspecies. For years, Sudan had represented the final hope for the survival of his kind, but now scientists have a back-up plan: Using Sudan's sperm, they may be able to continue his genetic line even after his death.

Northern white rhino numbers from dwindled from 2000 in 1960 to only three in recent years. Those last survivors, Sudan, his daughter Najin, and granddaughter Fatu, lived together at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Each animal had physical issues making it difficult for them to breed, and now with Sudan gone, a new generation of northern white rhinos looks even less likely.

But there is one way the story of these animals doesn't end in extinction. Before Sudan died, researchers were able to save some of his genetic material, which means it's still possible for him to father offspring. Scientists may either use the sperm to artificially inseminate one of the surviving females (even though they're related) or, due to their age and ailments, fertilize one of their eggs and implant the embryo into a female of a similar subspecies, like the southern white rhino, using in vitro fertilization.

"We must take advantage of the unique situation in which cellular technologies are utilized for conservation of critically endangered species," Jan Stejskal, an official at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic where Sudan lived until 2009, told AFP. "It may sound unbelievable, but thanks to the newly developed techniques even Sudan could still have an offspring."

Poaching has been a major contributor to the northern white rhino's decline over the past century. Rhinos are often hunted for their horns, which are believed to have medicinal properties in some Asian cultures. (Other people just view the horn as a sign of wealth and status). Procreating is the biggest issue threatening the northern white rhinoceros at the moment. If such poaching continues, other rhino species in the wild could end up in the same situation.

[h/t CNN]


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