The true story of the first marathon

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:

1/ 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.

2/ 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 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.

3/ 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.

4/ 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.

5/ 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.’

6/ 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.

7/ 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.

8/ If Pheidippides had failed in his 300-mile ultra 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.