In a recent commercial you've seen 115 times, American marathoner Ryan Hall listens to The Odyssey as he runs, all thanks to AT&T's impressively expansive 4G network.*
Hall’s jog begins on an unidentified campus, then continues under some train tracks, past a giant blue gorilla, and toward a setting sun. At the ad’s 16-second mark, Hall briefly pauses as The Odyssey reaches its conclusion, then starts to run again after queuing up Moby Dick. The audiobook version of Robert Fagles' translation of The Odyssey—I'm currently listening to it and Book Eleven is great—clocks in at 13 hours, 18 minutes, and 46 seconds (or 798.77 minutes). The inevitable question: How many miles did Ryan Hall cover while listening to Homer’s epic poem?
First, we must determine Hall’s stride rate. During the commercial’s fifth through tenth seconds, the U.S. record holder in the half-marathon takes 16 strides—that’s 3.2 strides per second, or 192 strides per minute. He doesn't seem to slow up at any point during the advertisement either, so let’s stipulate that he runs at that rate the entire, hypothetical day.
Second, we need Hall's stride length. In his record-setting half-marathon in Houston, Hall traveled 69,218 feet (13.1 miles) in 59 minutes and 43 seconds, taking approximately 10,868 steps. That gives him an average of around 6 feet 4 1/2 inches per stride. (While some sources peg Hall's stride length at 6 feet 10 inches, we'll use the measurement from his best race.)
At 6.37 feet per stride, and at 192 strides per minute, that means he's running 1,223 feet per minute in the commercial. If Hall runs at that pace for all of those mythical minutes—perhaps quickening his step when Odysseus de-ocularizes the Cyclops, but slowing when the men discuss the prevailing winds for the 48th time—how much ground does he cover in almost 800 minutes?
If only the answer were that simple. A close reading reveals that Hall, not known in running circles for taking shortcuts, seems to have skipped some of the performance. When the commercial starts, the time on his phone is 8:07 a.m. When he begins listening to Moby Dick (a 21-hour audiobook in its own right), the phone reads 7:12pm. That means that Hall, if he never hit pause along the way, listened to 11:05:00 of The Odyssey. What happened to those missing 2 hours, 13 minutes, and 46 seconds? Given that the gap in the Watergate tapes ran just 18.5 minutes, this AT&T commercial leaves us to ponder whether Ryan Hall is seven times trickier than Nixon.
But let’s give Hall the benefit of the doubt. If he changed time zones, running, say, from Mountain to Pacific, we would add an hour to his exercise time and assume that he’d heard 12:05:00 of The Odyssey. A time zone switch is not impossible. This is a long journey we're talking about. An expedition, a voyage, a peregrination.
So, on to our calculations. If he stays in one time zone, Hall moves at 1,223 feet per minute for 665 minutes. That's 813,190 feet, or 154 miles in the course of his run—in the neighborhood of six jaunts from Marathon to Athens. If we roll with the Mountain-to-Pacific theory and add another hour to Hall’s run, that gives us 886,561 feet, or 167.9 miles.
And if Hall had listened to The Odyssey the whole way through? He’d have covered 976,767 feet, or 185 miles. By chopping out 2 hours, 13 minutes, and 46 seconds of Greek poetry, then, Hall saved himself more than a marathon of work. But considering that the record for distance covered on a treadmill in 24 hours is a mere 153.76 miles, maybe we can cut Hall some slack for taking it easy.
Meanwhile, one final computation: A line of dactylic hexameter, the meter of The Odyssey, contains six poetic feet. There are 12,110 lines in Homer’s epic, which gives us about 72,660 units of rhythm. By this measure, Hall runs 10 feet per foot, give or take a couple of feet in either direction.
*Correction, Aug. 28: This post originally said that Ryan Hall was listening to Ian McKellen read Robert Fagles' translation of The Odyssey. Hall actually seems to be listening to a non-McKellen voice actor read Samuel Butler's translation.