The Real Story Of The Marathon

We all think we know how the marathon started, but the full story tells of an even more spectacular running feat – and not just by Pheidippides

Posted: 24 March 2003
by Michael Clark

Everyone knows the original story of the marathon, right? This runner – whatsisname – ran 26 miles back from the Plain of Marathon to Athens, bringing news of the Athenian victory over the Persians, and he died of exhaustion after he gasped out his story. I have to say that I’ve always found this an improbable tale, even when I was told it in school. Why should anyone run themselves to death to bring good news? And can you kill yourself by collapsing at the end of one 26-mile slog?

In fact, the real story is better than the legend, and much more of an inspiration to today’s runners. For the Greeks won the Battle of Marathon as much by their running as by their fighting.

In 490BC a Persian army of over 25,000 men (some accounts put the figure as high as 60,000), plus cavalry and some 600 ships, invaded Greece and began to ravage the coast of Attica. The target was always the city state of Athens and their plan was simple: to land at Marathon, 26 miles north of Athens; beat the small Athenian army; then sail round the coast to invade the city from the south, where they hoped the gates would be opened to them by traitors within.

The Athenians could only put up an army of 10,000 men, with no cavalry and no ships. Their allies from the tiny city state of Plataia sent 1000 soldiers. The Greeks were hopelessly outnumbered, but when the Persians landed, the Athenians and Plataians marched out to Marathon, a narrow plain by the sea where they could block the road to Athens. It was then about August 5 or 6.

This is where the running epic began. The Athenians needed help from Sparta – the Peloponnese city near the present-day town of Argos. Before they marched to Marathon the Athenians had sent the runner Pheidippides to beg the Spartans for assistance. He was a professional military messenger and must have been quite an athlete; able to cover dangerous ground alone, look after himself, commit accurate messages to memory and answer questions when he arrived.

If the situation was so desperate why didn’t he use a horse? Because the quickest route to Sparta was too rough. It had to be done on foot. The distance from Athens to Sparta is 140 miles and Pheidippides apparently did it inside two days. This is feasible – in 1982 three RAF officers (including a 56-year-old) tried the likely route and did it in 35 hours.

The Spartans would not send forces immediately. It was a religious festival in Sparta and they refused to set out until the full moon – this would have been August 11-12. They could not have reached Athens sooner than August 20-21. It was vital that the Athenians knew the bad news as soon as possible, and Pheidippides must then have run another 140 miles back to Athens with the dire news. We don’t know how long he took, but by August 11 the Athenians and Plataians certainly knew they were on their own.

Pheidippides had covered 280 rough miles in, at most, 10 days. He might have ridden some of the time, near to the Athens road, but he still covered almost a marathon a day, allowing for the time he spent fruitlessly in Sparta.

Faced with Pheidippides’ news, the Athenians decided that their best chance was a rapid attack of their own. At dawn, probably on August 12, they formed a phalanx and, to the astonishment of the Persian host, ran at them in a fierce assault. The Greeks deliberately left their centre weak and allowed it to fall back, but their strong flanks broke through the Persians and then wheeled inwards to trap the main body of the enemy in the centre of the plain. Once the Persians had been broken up in this way, they were routed and the Greeks pursued them over the three miles back to their ships at the north end of the plain.

The Persians rallied at the ships and a second battle developed which lasted several hours. It was here that the greatest of the Greek losses occurred, including that of Kallimachos, the commander. By noon it was all over. The surviving Persians had escaped, leaving about 6500 dead. The Athenian dead numbered under 200, the Plataians about 600. It was a stunning victory, but the Greeks knew this was not the end.

Now came another astonishing feat of running. The Persian fleet was already at sea, in the second phase of the plan, sailing round Cape Sounion to arrive on the beach at Phaleron and march against an undefended Athens. It would be 8-10 hours’ sailing. An advance fleet, probably with cavalry on board (for the dash into the city) had already set off before the battle had begun. Almost certainly, this is what accounts for the legendary 26-mile run of Pheidippides. He was running back to announce the victory, but also to warn the Athenians that the Persian fleet was even now on its way. Quite possibly he did die at this point, perhaps from long-term exhaustion, perhaps from wounds. One of the walls of the Acropolis is named after him, to mark the place where he was said to have collapsed.

More to the point, the Athenian army at Marathon had endured a fierce hand-to-hand battle, a running pursuit of almost three miles, and a second battle around the ships and the marshes. Now they had to race back to Phaleron before the Persians could land their cavalry. It’s hard for us to imagine how people feel after such a battle. Modern research suggests that hysteria, numbness, multiple minor wounds and, above all, sheer exhaustion form a complex set of reactions that send some soldiers into acts of casual cruelty, others weeping for their mothers, most into dumb lethargy.

But there was no time for any of this. The Athenians who were freshest set off as fast as they could to cover the distance back to the city. The rest gathered themselves up, some in formal units, others as groups of friends and neighbours, with their shields and equipment slung on their backs, and ran and trotted back as best they could in the August heat. We could say it was the first mass marathon – not exactly a fun run – but all runners will understand the sort of help and support they must have been giving each other, and the reception of the Athenian populace who came out onto the Phaleron road to bring food and supplies to them.

By late afternoon it had become a straight race; the Persian fleet rounding Cape Sounion as the fastest Greek soldiers ran south through Vrana, Kephista, into the city and out again towards the coast. The first Athenians at Phaleron made it in five or six hours, only an hour ahead of the advance ships of the Persian fleet. Their victory in this race was critical.

The Persians couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the troops, filthy, bloodstained, hollow with exhaustion, lining up on Phaleron beach ready to repel the landing. The Persians hesitated, fatally, waiting for the main fleet to arrive during the night. And as night fell, the rest of the Athenian army came limping into the Greek camp. They began to cook their food and, as the night wore on, the Persians saw more fires springing up on the ground behind the beach. By dawn, their worst fears were confirmed. The Athenians were there, over 9000 of them, ready to fight again. The Persians were still overwhelmingly stronger, but now the Greeks seemed superhuman, and Persian nerves failed. The Persian fleet hung around for a few days in the vain hope of an opening, and then sailed away.

The campaign was over and the ‘Men of Marathon’ were celebrated across generations for their running as much as for their fighting. They were the saviours of the city, and to have performed such prodigious feats it was assumed that they must have been the instruments of the gods. The legend of Pheidippides came to symbolise both the greatness of the soldiers and the role of the deities. There is a neat irony, however, in all this. The Greeks would have regarded our modern marathon as a grotesque contest, too specialised, requiring too much training – not what a gentleman should spend his time doing. Perhaps that is why they could only explain what Pheidippides and the other Men of Marathon achieved by regarding it as somehow divine.

Michael Clarke is Professor of Defence Studies at King’s College, University of London

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Everybody read this? An incredible story - those Athenian soldiers must have been made out of seriously tough stuff.

26.2 around London doesn't really compare...

Posted: 25/03/2003 at 13:14

yeah. Well worth a read.

Would be interested to know what kind of splits they were doing, and how goatskin sandals and wooden clogs compare to Asics 1080s. Perhaps a bit lacking in heel support for your average over-pronater.

Posted: 25/03/2003 at 13:43

and without any training - madness
Posted: 25/03/2003 at 13:45

Good grief - we've got it easy !
Posted: 25/03/2003 at 13:48

I keep reminding myself that these were fit young soldiers and that to compare my performance to theirs is inappropriate.

Mind you I suspect their mothers would also have run the legs off me, they seem like seriously tough people.
Posted: 25/03/2003 at 13:48

Yes, very good article, the idea of running all that way TOWARDS people that want to kill me is insiprational. No wonder the invaders stayed in their boats.
Posted: 25/03/2003 at 16:38

But we have to remember their life expectancy was not so good - a sure sign of "too much too soon", I suppose. If only they'd stuck to a graded exercise programme rather than try to increase things so quickly, maybe they would have lived into their 70s/80s...
Posted: 25/03/2003 at 16:51

pitts - the life expectancy for every1 was much lower than today in those days!!!!!
Posted: 25/03/2003 at 17:00

I was sort of deliberately avoiding that issue. But then maybe they were all pushing themselves too much. I bet none of them spent time doing an easy run/walk around the park with an MP3 player...
Posted: 25/03/2003 at 17:03

But if they hadn't done the running, 60,000 heavily armed Persians probably wouldn't have done much for their life expectancy either!

Peter - never mind the heel support, what about the blisters? 300 miles without quality running socks and they had to wait another 2,500 years for the electric foot spa!
Posted: 25/03/2003 at 21:27

they had to be that transport othwer than horse/cart, so running v.useful especially as all men had to be in the army...ever heard of the spartans...even worse (I have a classics BA!!)
Posted: 25/03/2003 at 21:32

ooooohhh! I say matron.
Posted: 25/03/2003 at 21:38

ooooohhh! I say matron.

Posted: 25/03/2003 at 21:38

It's amazing what you can learn on a running site's forum isn't it?
Posted: 25/03/2003 at 21:41

Yes, it is an amazing story but .... I'm reading a book just now - The Looniness of the Long Distance Runner - in which it states that the distance run by Phiedippides was more like 25 miles and the marathon was, for a time, 25 miles until the London 1908 Olympics when the Queen ordered the route to be lengthened so her children wouldn't have to leave the comfort of their nursery to watch the start. And apparently this is why many runners say 'God save the Queen' or similar (!) when they cross the 25 mile mark. I do tend to believe everything I read so would appreciate anyone who can confirm / deny this trivia. Jenny
Posted: 26/03/2003 at 11:18

Jenny, I do think it's true. 26 miles is the distance between Windsor Castle and White City. This was a Trivial Pursuit question some time ago, so I assume was verified.
Posted: 26/03/2003 at 14:37

Wasn't it 26 miles before, and the 385 yds was added on to suit the Queen, so that it finished in front of the royal box ?
Posted: 27/03/2003 at 17:44

Yes, sorry, Andy, I didn't make that clear. That's why it's such an odd distance.
Posted: 28/03/2003 at 08:06

so are all the marathons in the world 26miles 385yds, ie, the American ones as well?
Posted: 28/03/2003 at 09:44

No, in most countries in the world they are 42.2km ;-)
Posted: 28/03/2003 at 11:03

there's just no getting away from that .2 is there?

Spartans - seriously tough people. Read "Gates Of Fire" by Stephen Pressfield. Awesome book about a suicide stand of 300 Spartans.
Posted: 28/03/2003 at 11:31

There's an insurance company based in Cheshire somewhere called 'Spartan Insurance', with logo of bloke with helmet, shield and spear, etc.

I always thought it an odd name for an insurance company - yes, 'spartan' might be taken as referring to brave warriors, but it also means basic and austere, which is not what I'd want from an insurance policy !

Posted: 28/03/2003 at 12:29

I found this forum fascinating as I try to train up for another marathon fifteen years since my last one. Professor Clarkes story of Pheidippides has the ring of truth as far as I am concerned. Herodotus recounted the story 50 years after the event. I haven"t read Pressfields version of Thermopylae but I will look out for it. According to Herodotus the 300 spartans and their allies held out for many days at the pass of thermopylae against the huge army of persians (over 2 million is clearly an exaggeration) lead by Xerxes the son of the persian ruler Darius at the time of marathon 10 years earlier. Faced with the certainty of their death the spartans under Leonidas chose to stay and fight day after day.I wonder if the example of the greeks at marathon 10 years earlier was in their minds and 2500 years ago to this day Pheidippides and his running continues to inspire. Herodotus recorded epitaph for the spartans has been shortened to "Friend, go tell the spartans" and I think that the true story of Marathon, Pheidippides and Thermopylae should be told more often if only to inspire marathon runners.
Posted: 24/08/2003 at 22:07

my interpretation of what the looniness book says is that the marathon was 25miles.. and as such a route was planned for london.... moving the start to windsor added and extra mile... and ensuring it ended under the royal box added the 385yds.

the other early marathon stories in the book are absolutely hilarious (well i thought so): 'incompetance by officials, over-enthusiasm by spectators and some blatant cheating by participants are just some of the features which were to characterise the early years of the marathon'

ISBN 0 233 05081 7
Posted: 24/08/2003 at 22:26

I am not sure about the 385 yards being added so that the Royal children could see the finish in comfort.
I seem to remember reading that it was the start that was taken back 385 yards so they could watch the start in comfort.
Didn't the race start at Windsor Castle and finish at the White City?

I don't know the answer but the conventional view of where the extra distance was added could be wrong.

Does anyone know for sure?
Posted: 25/08/2003 at 08:03

Amazing story! I just run my first marathon, without training and without the armor and minus the heat in upstate NY.

I finished it at a leisurely pace with a time of around 4 hours and 57 minutes. Hey, the Persians weren't after me and despite my attempts to imagine them with fetters and pursuing me ... I had to succumb to a bit of laziness and comfort.

Now all I want to do is .... fight some Persians? Probably not so soon, right now an attractive woman to cuddle with will do, considering I would need to remember exactly what I am fighting for ... :)

p.s. there was a really hot Scandinavian looking woman, very blonde and very beautiful (from behind atleast)... when I was hobbling past the 23rd mile she whizzed by and motivated me to run again ...

p.p.s. I also got some help from a few of the Anglican Churches on the way and a status of Abraham Lincoln ... and a lot of Norwegians (atleast they were encouraging enough to qualify)

Posted: 19/09/2004 at 21:50

Have any of us, ever said, or heard anyone say "God save the Queen" at 25 miles? I know I haven't.

Posted: 19/09/2004 at 22:47

By the way, Pheidipades more probable run is recreated every September by the 150 ish mile Spartathlon.
Posted: 19/09/2004 at 22:49

At 25 miles I have been heard to say the first part, but I haven't managed the "Save the Queen" bit.
Posted: 19/09/2004 at 23:31

"Thank **** for that!" or "Eurgggggggghhhhhhhhh!!!!!" is probably more common at the end of a marathon.
Posted: 19/09/2004 at 23:59

I would say God Save the Queen gladly and with my last breath! if I had known about it earlier I would have on my first marathon today, Instead I was saying "Rule Brittania" through most of the run ... and my first marathon's end run was rather comfortable and easy ... probably because I was taking my time.
Posted: 20/09/2004 at 00:50

Best way to do it.
Posted: 20/09/2004 at 07:33

OI, RW plagarism,

Didn't I post that story last month?
Posted: 20/09/2004 at 08:48

I'm off to find it, BR even mentioned the bit about fun running.
Posted: 20/09/2004 at 08:48

it is woowwwwwwww!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Posted: 22/05/2012 at 14:21

This is an old article

Posted: 23/05/2012 at 21:23

Will have a read  of it though.

Posted: 23/05/2012 at 21:24

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