The True Story Of The First Marathon


Runner's World (UK) - - In This Issue -

Ul­tra leg­end Dean Kar­nazes looks to the be­gin­ning

Many run­ners are fa­mil­iar with the story sur­round­ing the ori­gins of the mod­ern marathon. As the well-worn leg­end goes, af­ter the badly out­num­bered Greeks some­how man­aged to drive back the Per­sians who had in­vaded the coastal plain of Marathon, an Athe­nian mes­sen­ger named Phei­dip­pi­des was dis­patched from the bat­tle­field to Athens to de­liver the news of Greek vic­tory. Af­ter run­ning about 25 miles to the Acrop­o­lis, he burst in and gal­lantly hailed his coun­try­men with ‘Nike! Nike! Nenikeka­men’ (‘ Vic­tory! Vic­tory! Re­joice, we con­quer!’). And then

he promptly col­lapsed from ex­haus­tion and died. It turns out, how­ever, that the story is big­ger than that. Much big­ger. The whole idea of recre­at­ing an an­cient voy­age was fan­tas­tic to me. Look­ing for an ex­cuse to visit the coun­try of my an­ces­tors, I signed up for the Spar­tathlon in 2014, an ul­tra marathon from Athens to Sparta that roughly fol­lows Phei­dip­pi­des’s route. It felt like the right way to tell his story – the ac­tual story of the marathon. Here’s what I dis­cov­ered on my quest for truth:


PHEI­DIP­PI­DES WAS NOT A CIT­I­ZEN ATH­LETE, but a hemero­dro­mos, one of the men in the Greek mil­i­tary known as day-long run­ners. What they did was con­sid­ered be­yond com­pe­ti­tion, more akin to some­thing sa­cred. Much is writ­ten about the train­ing and prepa­ra­tion of Olympic ath­letes, and quite de­tailed ac­counts of the early

Greek Games ex­ist. Com­par­a­tively lit­tle is recorded of the mys­te­ri­ous hemero­dro­moi other than that they cov­ered in­cred­i­ble dis­tances on foot, over rocky and moun­tain­ous ter­rain, for­go­ing sleep if need be in car­ry­ing out their vi­tal du­ties as mes­sen­gers.

Like Phei­dip­pi­des, I run long dis­tances – ul­tra marathons. Years ago, on my 30th birth­day, I ran 30 miles, com­plet­ing a cel­e­bra­tory mile for each one of my un­fath­omable years of ex­is­tence. That night for­ever al­tered the course of my life. I im­me­di­ately wanted to go fur­ther, to try 50-mile races even. And so I did just that. Train­ing and life be­came in­sep­a­ra­ble, one and the same, in­ti­mately in­ter­twined. Run­ning these long dis­tances was lib­er­at­ing. I felt a close­ness to Phei­dip­pi­des and I re­solved to learn what re­ally took place out there on the un­for­giv­ing hill­sides of an­cient Greece.

The mod­ern Olympic Marathon which we iden­tify with An­cient Greece, had no place in the an­cient games at all. The orig­i­nal Olympic footrace was a rel­a­tively short sprint. Called the Stade, it con­sisted of a roughly 200m dash on a straight stretch of grass. In­deed, the mod­ern marathon wouldn't come into ex­is­tence for an­other sev­eral thou­sand years.


THE STORY THAT EV­ERY­ONE IS FA­MIL­IAR WITH is that of Phei­dip­pi­des run­ning from the bat­tle­field of Marathon to Athens to an­nounce Greek vic­tory, a dis­tance of about 25 miles. But first he ran from Athens to Sparta, to gather Spar­tan troops to help the Athe­ni­ans in com­bat against the Per­sians. The dis­tance was much more than a sin­gle marathon, more like six marathons stacked one upon the other, some 150 miles.

At the mod­ern-day Spar­tathlon, I’d sup­pos­edly re­trace those steps. It is a de­mand­ing race with ag­gres­sive cut-off times. Run­ners must reach an an­cient wall at Hel­las Can fac­tory, in Corinth – 50.33 miles – within nine hours and 30 min­utes or face elim­i­na­tion. For com­par­i­son, many 50-mile ul­tra marathons have cut- off times of 13 or 14 hours to com­plete the race in its en­tirety.

At the start, I was sur­rounded by 350 war­riors hud­dled in the pre-dawn mist at the foot of the Acrop­o­lis in Athens. For me the quest was deeply per­sonal. I’d been wait­ing a life­time to be stand­ing in this place. I would fi­nally run along­side my an­cient brother, Phei­dip­pi­des, al­beit two and a half mil­len­nia in his wake. The start­ing gun went

Herodotus, the first Greek his­to­rian to write about the Bat­tle of Marathon, never men­tions the fi­nal run. And nei­ther Plutarch nor Lu­cian, who also wrote ex­ten­sively about An­cient Greece, refers to Phei­dip­pi­des as the in­di­vid­ual who ran from Marathon to Athens. They as­sign that run to a dif­fer­ent mes­sen­ger.

off, and away we went, into the streets crowded with morn­ing traf­fic. Po­lice­men were sta­tioned at most of the main junc­tions to stop ve­hi­cles, but af­ter cross­ing roads we run­ners had to run on the pave­ments, avoid­ing stray dogs, rub­bish bins and me­an­der­ing pedes­tri­ans.


AN­CIENT GREEK ATH­LETES WERE KNOWN to eat figs and other fruits, olives, dried meats and a par­tic­u­lar con­coc­tion com­posed of ground sesame seeds and honey mixed into a paste (now called pasteli). Hemero­dro­moi also con­sumed hand­fuls of a small fruit known as hip­pophae rham­noides (Sea Buck­thorn), which was thought to en­hance en­durance and stamina. This is how Phei­dip­pi­des prob­a­bly fu­elled dur­ing his run, and how I ran the race, too.

Ev­ery few miles in the Spar­tathlon, there were aid sta­tions over­flow­ing with mod­ern ath­letic foods, but no figs, olives, pasteli or cured meat were to be had. So I was supplied along the way by my crew, but by the time I picked up a bag of food in Corinth (about 50 miles in), the once de­lec­ta­ble pasteli now tasted like maple syrup mixed with tal­cum pow­der – chalky and re­pul­sively sweet – and I could no longer tol­er­ate the stuff as I had dur­ing my train­ing runs. I tried gnaw­ing on a piece of cured meat, but it was rub­bery and the gris­tle got stuck be­tween my teeth. I had sev­eral figs, which seemed to sit best in my stom­ach. About 50 miles later, af­ter climb­ing Mount Parthe­nion and plum­met­ing some 1,200 feet from the sum­mit, I was even­tu­ally de­posited in the re­mote out­post of San­gas, where my crew was wait­ing for me, ask­ing me if I could eat. I sim­ply shook my head, too ex­hausted to an­swer, and kept run­ning.


DAWN IS THE BEWITCHING HOUR dur­ing an all-night run. Run­ning through the Ar­ca­dian foothills, I was fight­ing hard to stay awake. Slowly, ever so grad­u­ally, my eye­lids drooped down­ward. Still, I pressed on. When I re­opened my eyes, I found my­self in the mid­dle of the road. What the heck? I thought. And then it hap­pened again, and I re­alised I was sleep run­ning. Judg­ing from An­cient Greek record, Phei­dip­pi­des would have prob­a­bly passed through this very same sec­tion of Ar­ca­dia in the early morn­ing hours, just as I was do­ing then. To think that an an­cient hemero­dro­mos was run­ning along here 2,500 years ago fas­ci­nated me, and know­ing that this was the land of my an­ces­tors made the ex­pe­ri­ence even more vis­ceral. Just as I was fully ap­pre­ci­at­ing the depth of my con­nec­tion to this place, a large diesel truck came bar­rel­ing down the road straight for me, in­stantly thrust­ing me back into the present- day re­al­ity of the mod­ern Spar­tathlon. It was a stark re­minder that while some things hadn't changed since an­cient times, other things had. I was clos­ing in on Tegea, which would mean I had about 30 more miles to go.

‘ Uni­hemi­spheric slow-wave sleep’ refers to half of the brain be­ing awake (in­clud­ing an open eye) while the other half shows signs of sleep. I've since talked to other ul­tra marathon­ers who have ex­pe­ri­enced sleep run­ning.


PHEI­DIP­PI­DES RAN THE DIS­TANCE in two days. I reached the end in 34:45: 27. There is no fin­ish line to cross, no mat to step over or tape to break; in­stead you con­clude the jour­ney by touch­ing the feet of the tow­er­ing bronze statue of King Leonidas in the cen­tre of Sparta. The mayor places an olive leaf wreath upon the head of each finisher and you drink from a golden gob­let filled with wa­ter from the Evro­tas River, sim­i­lar to how Olympian win­ners were hon­ored in an­cient times. Ex­hausted as he must have been from the jour­ney, Phei­dip­pi­des’s job was still not com­plete. He needed to present a com­pelling case for why the Spar­tans should join the Athe­ni­ans in bat­tle. ‘Men of Sparta,’ he re­port­edly said, ‘the Athe­ni­ans be­seech you to has­ten to their aide, and not al­low that state, which is the most an­cient in all of Greece, to be en­slaved by the bar­bar­ians.’


AP­PAR­ENTLY HIS PLEA WAS con­vinc­ing. But the moon wasn’t full, and re­li­gious law for­bade the Spar­tans to bat­tle un­til it was, which wouldn’t be for an­other six days. Phei­dip­pi­des had to let his peo­ple know about the de­lay. So he did the un­think­able. Af­ter a brief rest and some food, he awoke be­fore sun­rise and set out on the re­turn trip – about 150 miles back to Athens. With his con­sti­tu­tion com­pro­mised, Phei­dip­pi­des found him­self trudg­ing back over Mount Parthe­nion, when sud­denly he had a vi­sion of the god Pan stand­ing be­fore him. With the face of a hu­man but the body and horns of a goat, Pan was an un­set­tling fig­ure to be­hold. Ac­cord­ing to the his­to­rian Herodotus, Pan ex­plained that while he was loyal to the Athe­ni­ans, they must wor­ship him prop­erly to pre­serve the al­liance. Pan had great pow­ers that could un­ravel the en­emy, and he would be­stow the Athe­ni­ans with these abil­i­ties, but only if they were to re­vere him as they should.


AGAIN, PHEI­DIP­PI­DES MADE THE TRIP in about two days. Af­ter he reached Athens, the city de­ployed 10,000 adult male Athe­nian cit­i­zens to Marathon to fend off 60,000 Per­sians. De­spite be­ing out­num­bered, the Greeks were in an ad­van­ta­geous bat­tle po­si­tion, so Gen­eral Mil­ti­ades, the leader of the Athe­nian troops, had the men hun­ker down to await the ar­rival of the Spar­tans. But the next day Mil­ti­ades re­ceived in­tel­li­gence that the Per­sians had sent their cav­alry back to their ships and were plan­ning to split into two groups and sur­round the Greeks. The most pru­dent strat­egy could have seemed to be to re­treat to Athens to de­fend the city and wait for the Spar­tans to join the fight. But, thanks to Phei­dip­pi­des, Mil­ti­ades knew the Spar­tans wouldn’t come soon enough. He de­cided that the Athe­ni­ans would wake early the next morn­ing and at­tack the Per­sian po­si­tion while their horse­men were ab­sent and be­fore they had time to carry out their plan. Taken by surprise, the Per­sians were de­feated.

The lit­eral trans­la­tion of the word ‘marathon’ is ‘a place full of fen­nel’ (yes, the aro­matic herb). Why fen­nel? Be­cause when the in­vad­ing Per­sian mil­i­tary forces landed on the shores of Greece in 490 BCE, they en­coun­tered a mas­sive field of fen­nel. It is here that the Bat­tle of Marathon took place.


IF PHEI­DIP­PI­DES HAD FAILED in h is 300-mile u ltra marathon, one of the most crit­i­cal bat­tles in his­tory might have been lost. Thus was the bat­tle ul­ti­mately waged and won at Marathon. Even­tu­ally, the Spar­tans ar­rived in Athens and learned of the out­come. Be­fore they got there, a mes­sen­ger – but not Phei­dip­pi­des, ac­cord­ing to schol­ars – had run 25 miles to de­liver the good news. So why do we run 26.2? Why are we not run­ning some 300 miles, the dis­tance Phei­dip­pi­des ran from Athens to Sparta and back? Why high­light the shorter run when a much greater feat oc­curred? Per­haps be­cause in that fi­nal jaunt from the bat­tle­field of Marathon to Athens, the other mes­sen­ger sup­pos­edly died at the con­clu­sion. To the An­cient Greeks, noth­ing could be no­bler than dy­ing af­ter per­form­ing a heroic deed for one’s coun­try.

From top: the au­thor in his grand­fa­ther's house; stand­ing with Her­mes in Athens; the start of the 2014 Spar­tathlon.

From left: run­ning the 2010 Sil­i­con Val­ley Marathon in a toga; the au­thor's calves, a trade­mark of the (Greek) Kar­nazes fam­ily.

Ac­cord­ing to ex­perts on An­cient Greece, Phei­dip­pi­des ran from Athens to Sparta (1), then from there back to Athens

(2). Mod­ern leg­end says he only ran from Marathon to Athens (3). How­ever, these last 25 miles are as­signed to an­other mes­sen­ger in the an­nals of An­cient Greece.

Left: run­ning the Navarino Chal­lenge in Messe­nia prior to the big race. Right: at the Spar­tathlon fin­ish with King Leonidas.

Adapted with per­mis­sion from The Road to Sparta, by Dean Kar­nazes. Pub­lished by Ro­dale.

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