A Marathon Legend

I posted this on my Facebook page and got more reaction than I expected. So here’s an expanded version for your reading pleasure.

For most of my life, I’ve believed the story in my 5th grade schoolbook about Pheidippides running 25 miles from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to declare “We won!” before promptly dropping dead, and that’s the origin of the marathon.

Today I learned that’s not at all true.

poster: "Run like Pheidippides. Finish like someone else."
It is sad, however, that such inspiring motivational posters are inaccurate. “Run like Pheidippides. Finish like someone else.”

Pheidippides actually ran from Marathon to Sparta, BEFORE the battle, to ask for the Spartans’ help (they declined, they were busy), and it wasn’t a mere 25 miles, it was 140. And he got there the next day. And not only did he not drop dead, but he reported back to the Athenians. Dude was hardcore.

That’s a much better story, and the textbook author could have just looked up Herodotus instead of lying to a bunch of kids. Now I distrust a lot of other cool stories. Plus it’s totally ruined my not-running excuse about the marathon killing its first participant.

The roughly-26-mile marathon was invented for the 1896 Olympics, for an actual run from Marathon to Athens based on the erroneous legend. However you’ll be happy to know that there is an annual 240 km race from Marathon to Sparta to honor Pheidippides’ historical run, called the Spartathlon. (Record time is just 20.5 hours. Pheidippides would be proud, though I’m sure he’d point out he didn’t have paved roads.)

I know a couple of ultra-marathoners, who run 80- or 100-mile races, but I’m not convinced they’re fully human and not Replicants — and even they would, I suspect, not want to make that run in sandals or bare feet.

K.T. Ivanrest pointed out:

Herodotus also has stories about gryphons that guard gold in the Skythian mountains. XD

True. And I left out the part about Pheidippides reporting he met the god Pan en route to Sparta. (Endorphins are a wonderful thing….) But while Herodotus was merely repeating hearsay about the Skythian mountains, his report on Marathon was within memory of the event and probably recited aloud to veterans and other knowledgeable audiences, so I give him somewhat more credit there.

I also had this related exchange, which sums up my idea of the brutal athleticism involved:

Robin Murray: So, when’s your first marathon?
Laura VanArendonk Baugh: I’ve done 10,000-word days multiple times. ;-)
Robin Murray: I binge watched Stranger Things, so I think we’re good.

poster for The Giant of Marathon, 1959
poster for The Giant of Marathon, 1959

Because I have a masochistic delight in B-movies, I found The Giant of Marathon, a sword & sandal/peplum Italian production based on the historical battle of Marathon in the same way that Disney’s Pocahontas is based on an actual Algonquin princess’s life story. (Fun fact: According to John Smith’s memoir, he was saved from certain death by a gorgeous princess with a crush multiple times in his adventurous life. Sheesh, man, at least vary your story!) In this version Phillippides is not a professional long-distance courier, but a military commander of Athens’s Sacred Guard (which as far as I can tell exists only in this film — there was a Sacred Band a century or two later in Thebes, but according to sources they wouldn’t have been interested in the film’s female lead), and he brings back Spartans to fight and win, though Sparta never participated in the historical Marathon.

The Giant of Marathon stars Steve Reeves, because of course it does, as Reeves was a bodybuilder who played in many classic sword & sandal films. (No relation to either George Reeves or Christopher Reeve of Superman fame.)

I’m a lousy runner. (I have a doctor’s note.) I even walk obstacle course races. (Sorry, team!) While I find this bit of ancient history inspiring, I think I’m going to stick to walking.

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