The Wild Story of the Marathon
The marathon is a race that's deeply embedded in our world; renowned for its length, its brotherhood, and its test of cardiovascular strength and willpower. The race has intrigued me ever since I got into running, but I haven't felt ready to take it on. However, with that intrigue, I never actually knew the history of the race. I recently learned of the ancient tale that the marathon came from and it makes it all the more magnificent.
There is some debate over who ran the first marathon and the date when it was completed, but for the sake of a good story I'm going to share the widely accepted legend from 490 BC. Pheidippides is the man of the hour. He was a Greek messenger, or I should say a hemerodromos: another word for a day-long runner in the Greek military. These men were required to run incredible distances on foot over harrowing mountain terrain to send messages important messages during times of war.
Legend has it that the Greeks - who were severely outnumbered in the battle - had managed to push back the Persians invading off the coast of Marathon to conclude the first Persian War. Immediately following the battle, Pheidippides was sent to Athens to bring news of the triumphant Greek victory. He ran the 25 miles (depending which route you take) without stopping, barged through the doors of the Acropolis, and triumphantly exclaimed, "Nike! Nike! Nenikekiam!" which means, "Victory! Victory! Rejoice, we conquer!"
And then he collapsed to the floor and promptly died.
Though as I continued researching this I realized that there's more to the story. Here's a bit more context...
In 490 BC, the Persian Empire was the major global force and the Greeks were still developing into the storied culture of thought and philosophy that we know them for today. The Persians were interested in broadening their power to the European side of the Aegean Sea, so they set sail to the west to conquer everyone in their path.
When the Persians reached the city of Marathon, the Athenians quickly sent their army to block the main exits into the heart of the country and the two civilizations were locked in a stalemate. As soon as the threat was realized from the Persians, Pheidippides was sent on his first run to Sparta to ask if they would help the Athenians defend their land. Unfortunately, the Spartans were having a grand religious festival and said they couldn't help until it was over, so Pheidippides ran back with the bad news.
Sparta and Athens are roughly 150 miles apart. Which means that this incredible messenger Pheidippides logged a whopping 300 miles the week before his most famous run.
There was a 5-day stalemate between the Greeks and Persians in Marathon before the Greeks decided to move on the offensive. With the territorial advantage, they were able to defeat the Persians and send them back out to sea. But since the Persians were known for their relentless military power, the people of Athens had little hope that their army could hold them off. This meant that if the Persian fleet sailed to Athens before the word of victory arrived, the city leaders might surrender the city to the Persians, thinking that there was no hope.
So the Athenian army mobilized a march back to Athens and sent Pheidippides ahead to tell the people of Athens to hold strong until the army arrived. That's when he completed his marathon run. The Athenian army arrived later in the day and successfully fortified their city. This forced the Persians to turn away and ended their invasion of Greece.
This victory for Greece dismantled the perception of Persia's power and helped Greece build confidence to defend against them in the future.
Now if you really want to celebrate this chunk Greek history, there's a race called the Spartathlon. In honor of the legend of Pheidippides, this race is run from Sparta to Athens - a distance of just over 150 miles - and must be completed within 36 hours. It sounds ridiculous, but people actually do this every year.
The human body is an incredible, wondrous machine.