Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Pheidippides was a courier employed by the Athenian army in the days when important messages were sent by runner, sometimes over very long distances that took days to deliver, sort of like Pony Express riders without the horses. The Athenian army planned on fighting the Persian army at a place called Marathon, but knew they’d need help, so they sent Pheidippides to ask the Spartans to join them. It took him two days to run the 150-mile distance to Sparta. When he got there the generals said sure, but they were in the middle of a religious festival and would be along in a few days when it was over. So Pheidippides ran back to Athens with the news. 

Unwilling to wait and eager for battle, the Athenians went it alone against a bigger Persian army and used a superior strategy to pull off the upset in only a single day of fighting. Pheidippides was rushed to Athens to tell the home folks about the big victory. Exhausted after running the whole way, he said the words “Rejoice, we conquer!” and dropped dead. It seems more likely his death was caused by running the 300-mile Spartathalon (it took him four days), than the puny little 26-mile marathon that took him less than four hours. Pheidippides had lots of slow-twitch muscle fibers.

What’s this about twitching? 

Most of our muscles are made up of two kinds of fibers. Slow-twitch muscle fibers move more slowly but help us keep moving longer. Fast-twitch muscle fibers help us move faster, but for shorter periods of time. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are the keys to endurance because they use slow, even energy, the winning formula for distance runners. Fast-twitch muscles fibers give runners the sudden bursts of energy sprinters need but tire quickly.

Muscles and tendons

Muscles are a group of tissues that contract together to produce a force. Tendons are rope-like cords of strong, flexible tissue that connect muscles to bones. As a runner’s foot hits the ground, the tendons stretch, adding force to the contracting muscles, much as a stretched rubber band will fly across the room when released. 

The world’s fastest sprinter covers 100 meters in less than 10 seconds

You might think that speed comes from muscles, but most of it actually comes from our tendons, those stringy bits that store and reuse what is called plastic energy. Muscles are strong but slow, great for lifting things, but not much for going fast. I’d say they’re like first gear in a car, but with so few manual transmissions around these days, we’ll have to settle for low gear on a bicycle, the one you use to start out with and the one you need when the hill gets really steep.


Everyone knows about his heel. As the oft-told tale goes, his mother took him to the River Styx when he was an infant. She held him by his heel and dipped him in the magic waters that were said to make dippees invulnerable. He came through many battles unharmed until the Trojan War, when Paris shot him in the heel with a poisoned arrow and he died. Today when someone has a physical vulnerability that leads to his downfall it is said to be his Achilles’ heel.

Achilles had a tendon, too

The Achilles tendon connects your calf muscles to your heel. Longer ones are more energy-efficient, generating more power because they stretch more. University of Alabama Birmingham exercise physiologist Gary Hunter says longer Achilles tendons generate more power because they’re like rubber bands; the longer the stretch, the more force is generated to provide forward velocity. Research shows people of African heritage have longer limbs, shorter calf muscles and longer Achilles tendons than those of Caucasian heritage.  

White men can’t jump 

That’s the title of a film starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as basketball hustlers who make money by preying upon the stereotype in the title. Scientists say say stereotyping is a cognitive process that involves associating a characteristic or set of characteristics with a group.

When we stereotype, we are making assumptions based upon such attributes as gender, race, religion or physical traits. The downside is that stereotyping can also involve, lead to or justify discrimination. Some of this doesn’t bother us at all, such as the stereotypical situation comedy husband who is not only inept, but lazy and stupid, too.

At the 1980 Summer Olympics, Scotland’s Allan Wells won the Olympic 100-meter dash

Since then, all 100-meter gold medalists have been won by men of Afro-Caribbean and African-American heritage. It was long considered racist to say black runners were genetically faster than white runners. Now it’s a matter of biology.


The Pony Express horseback mail delivery service covered the 2,000 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California in 10 days. Not so fast, you might say until you realize that the same distance took several months in a covered wagon. A string of relay riders each rode about 100 miles a day, switching to fresh horses every 10 or 15 miles.

They weren’t the first to use a long-distance horse relay system, though. That was famed Mongol Genghis Khan, whose messengers rode 25 miles each between stations. Technology killed the Pony Express when the transcontinental telegraph system took the country’s messages out of saddlebags and sent them across wires.


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