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.
I hate marathons, though. I hate running “against” something, or someone — I have zero (0) competitiveness about my running. I run for two reasons: pleasure, and my life*. (*It happens.)
So, we all know what a marathon is, right? A really long race. Twenty-six miles and 385 yards of long race, 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, a marathon. But why that distance?
I’m glad you asked.
The Battle of Marathon took place during late summer, 490 BC. The battle itself is named after the plains upon which the majority of the battle was fought. Marathon is located east of Athens, Greece. 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 could actually win a war without the Spartans — who were probably just busy throwing their babies off cliffs at the time.
The most common 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, the 40-year-old Pheidippides, hauled himself post-haste from the battlefield on Marathon 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 post on the battlefield and the Acropolis was… you guessed it! Twenty-six miles and 385 yards. But 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 race that carries you (on your feet; running or walking) any distance longer than the traditional 26.2 miles of the standard marathon. (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). Please allow me to 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 to his post on the Plains of Marathon (326.2 miles, total so far), watched the Persians get housed by a bunch of mostly naked dudes, then popped smoke back to the Acropolis to give the report (352.4 miles, give or take; day four), and then cashed his last paycheck right there on the floor to finally get some damn rest.
I guess you could probably say that our boy Phei, here, exceeded the standard. But check this, 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 dude actually did the full ATH-SPAR-ATH, just for grins. He — also a Greek — has since owned four total Spartathlons, and also owns the course speed record (one-way in 20:25:00).
I used to REALLY be into Classics stuff. Learned Latin and some Greek. Read my Herdotus and Aurelius. Could point out the Rubicon or Soghdiana on a blank map. I learned these things not because I was born in 1850 and had a lot of spare time, but because as a child I heard stories like the one of Pheidippides. Not some mythological demigod. But 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 hero stuff. 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 and woe. But filled with people like Pheidippides. And I will forever be humbled to have stood shoulder to shoulder with some of them.