I’m a runner. I run. I like to run. Over the years it’s become a meditation for me. I’ll go out sometimes and just…run. Wind my way back home after a few hours. I’ll write down everything I thought about—well, everything I can remember having thought about. I’ll map my route as best as possible. (And by “map” I literally mean I have a physical map on the table or floor, and I mark and calculate my route with a pencil and ruler.)
I hate marathons. I hate running “against” something, or someone. I run for one person: me. I run for two reasons: pleasure, and my life. (It’s happened. More than a lot. In every case, I find myself all assholes and elbows…completely unable to control my laughter as the footsteps and shouts fade behind me.)
So, we all know what a marathon is, right? A really long race. Twenty-six miles and 385 yards, to be exact. (And for those readers living in countries that have not been to the moon yet, that’s 42.195 kilometers.) It’s an actual unit of measurement. But why that distance?
I’m glad you asked.
The Battle of Marathon took place during August or September, 490 BC. That battle is named after the plains upon which it was (mostly) fought. Marathon is located east of Athens, in Attica. This battle was part of the first Persian invasion of mainland Greece. It was also pretty important, internally, because it showed everyone in Greece that they actually could win a war without the Spartans. But you guys go on ahead and keep throwing your babies off cliffs. We’re all really impressed, I can tell you.
The only damn reason non-Greeks or non-Classicists even know the name of this place is because of the race. And here’s why. Legend has it that this Athenian messenger, Pheidippides, hauled himself post-haste from the battlefield to the Acropolis in Athens to announce the victory of Greece (sans Sparta) over the Persians. Then without further ado, he died.
The distance between his supposed post on the battlefield and the Acropolis was…you guessed it! Twenty-six miles and 385 yards.
Now, let’s kick this rookie stuff for a minute. Twenty-six miles is quite a hoof. Not to be taken lightly, I’d say. But what you don’t hear about this beast Pheidippides is that the day before he ran that fateful, fatal message a paltry 26.2 miles to the Acropolis….
But wait! Let me explain ultra marathons first! An ultra, as they’re commonly called, is essentially any sporting event that carries you (on your feet; running or walking) any distance longer than the traditional 26.2. (This is called ‘foreshadowing’.)
There. Back to Pheidippides.
So, this guy, the day before he ran his “marathon,” had just returned to Athens from a two-way, three-day, there-and-holy-hell-he’s-back-again run while carrying a message from Athens to Sparta, announcing the arrival of and asking for assistance against the just-landed Persian hordes (which Sparta promptly tucked tail on). Uh…lemme mathematicize that for you real quick: He ran from Athens to Sparta in a day and a half (150 miles), then back to Athens in another day and a half (300 miles total; in three days), reported then to his post on the Plains of Marathon (326.2 miles, total), watched the Persians get housed by a bunch of mostly naked dudes, popped smoke back to the Acropolis (352.4 miles, give or take; day four), and cashed his last check to finally get some damn rest.
So, yeah. Marathons. How precious.
I guess you could probably say that our boy Phei, here, exceeded the standard. But check this. Pick up what I’m about to put down. Every year in Greece, jokers line up to run Pheidippides’ route from the Acropolis to Sparta. The Spartathlon, it’s called. They’ve been doing it since 1983. And one crazy SOB actually did the full ATH-SPAR-ATH. He—also a Greek—has since owned four total Spartathlons and also owns the course speed record (one-way in 20:25:00).
Long ago, before I was this Asia freak you see before you, before I was a multi-Middle Eastern Linguist, before my time in Germany, or the United Kingdom, I was a Classics geek. I studied Latin and ancient Greek. I had the Theogony memorized. I could point out Arbella, the Rubicon, and Soghdiana on a blank map. Trace Alexander’s route or Xenophon’s March. I could recite Homer. Quote Diogenes and Zeno.
I learned these things not because I was born in 1850, but because as a child I heard stories like the one of Pheidippides. Not a god. Not a legend. An actual dude. An actual hero. The triumph and tragedy of a world that did exist, and whose history was chock full of men and women who exceeded the standard…by far. Real dyed-in-the-wool heroes. I was raised on it, or raised myself on it, at least.
I’m lucky to have lived a life not devoid of such men and women. Not empty of tales of valor. But filled with BAMFs like Pheidippides.
(Featured image courtesy of stridenation.com)