From the Plains of Greece We Come
by Bob Schwartz
Just say the word with me. "M-a-r-a-t-h-o-n." To each of us
it carries with it a certain emotion. Perhaps euphoria (or is that
delirium) of completion or admission that once was, quite frankly, more than
enough. Or maybe the bliss of recognizing that your racing distance goes no
further than a 10K and the only time you want to hit the wall is when you
accidentally exit from the wrong side of the bed.
But no one can deny that the surge in popularity of the
marathon race has dramatically impacted upon the number of times the most
inane question is asked by the non-runner. You know the one you've
patiently responded to countless times with the answer that "It'll be 26.2
miles - - the same distance as the last one I ran" as your unathletic
inquisitor responds, "Well what are the odds that would happen! Exact same
length huh? Go figure!"
Though many of us know what it's like to run a marathon,
not all of us know the history behind it. Perhaps you know that it has
something to with a Greek battle but maybe you don't have more knowledge
than it might have been Phi Kappa Delta versus Sigma Nu. Well I'm here to
change all that. I'm the history professor in the microfleece tights and
the reflective pullover. Let's begin today's lesson:
Legend has it that the first famous long distance runner
(well before endorsement deals with shoe companies and guaranteed race
appearance fees) emerged from the plains of Marathon, Greece in 490 BC.
After the Athenians had defeated the Persians at the Battle
of Marathon (which has a better ring than, say, the Battle of
Dhidhimotikhonopolis. You'd be hard pressed to get that on a race T-shirt)
the Greek warrior Pheidippides was chosen to bring the news of the great
victory to the citizens of Athens. Problem was the city was many, many
miles off in the distance and the invention of the automobile or any form of
mass transit was still a few years away.
So, young Pheidippides began running the approximately 26
miles from Marathon to Athens without the advantage of a big carbo-loading
pasta dinner the night before. He also ran without the benefit of aid
stations, course volunteers, energy bars, bands playing music or cheering
spectators yelling, "You're looking great!" He also did not have advantage
of air-cushioned shoes, polyester shorts or race directors at the finish
line saying, "Here comes Mr. Pheidippides from Athens.
Occupation is courier. Lets give him a nice round of applause!"
Pheidippides also fell victim to a common training blunder
of modern runners. Apparently he'd recently completed, in two days, a
little jaunt of 150 miles to Sparta from Marathon in the effort to obtain
some military assistance. Clearly, he'd failed to read the overtraining
section from Herodotus' Book on Running or he was simply trying to set a PR
for a weekly mileage total.
Fact is, because of his recent ultra-event and his ongoing
day job of warrior, he didn't allow himself sufficient rest prior to having
to embark on his own marathon. (Of course he had the better excuse of not
actually knowing someone had pre-registered him for the race.) He hit the
proverbial wall around the large sign that read, "Six miles to Athens," and,
tragically, he succumbed to exhaustion on the outskirts of the city.
But all was not entirely lost as, in his last gasping and
panting breath, he heroically uttered those final words of, "Rejoice, we
conquer! Got any sports drink?"
Tragically, it was then that the rigors of the marathon
conquered him. For his tremendous effort he would become famous throughout
the land. (Truth be known, Greek rumor has it that Pheidippides ran much
farther than was necessary. Seems he got turned around slightly and despite
not having the benefit of an AAA TripTik, he chose to be the initiator of
that time honored male tradition - - refusing to ask for directions. Then
again, what challenge would a marathon be if Athens were really only 7 ½
His legacy spawned the inclusion of the marathon race when
the Olympics were inaugurated in Greece in 1896. Unfortunately, none of the
25 entrants seemed to have gained any lesson from the calamitous outcome of
Pheidippides. The runners had pretty much no idea of what they were about
to experience. A first time marathoner encumbered with a healthy dose of
naivete is often not an attractive site.
The participants all struggled to get to the finish line,
and only nine actually completed the race. Due to their fatigue at the end,
only four were even able to remember their names, and three of them were
delirious enough to jump into the Olympic pool thinking their next event was
Synchronized Swimming. The good news was, in their derangement, they
picked up a bronze medal for their impromptu pool performance.
As for the gold medallist in the inaugural Olympic
Marathon, the story is that a local Greek peasant named Spiridon Louis
entered the Olympic Stadium first and slowly ran toward the finish line that
was in front of the King's throne. (However, until I see actual
photographs of the finish I still believe that it was a Kenyan that won.)
Allegedly he was covered with dust and running in tattered bedraggled worn
sandals (state of the art though). He would cross the finish line (in 2
hours 55 minutes 10 seconds for 40km) and his dazed smile was for realizing
he'd now qualified for the Boston Marathon.
His life would change forever. Everlasting glory was
bestowed upon him (once he passed the rigorous drug-screening laboratory) as
the host country went ecstatic. He was given 25,000 francs (perhaps thereby
becoming the first athlete to lose his amateur status) and was finally given
permission by his future father-in-law to marry his longtime sweetheart
(purportedly a bronze medalist in the badminton competition). Ah, the
romance of running.
At the 1908 Olympics in London, the marathon distance was
changed from 24.85 to 26 miles to cover the ground from Windsor Castle to
White City Stadium. You may then wonder where did that lovely 385 yards get
tacked on. It was added so the race could finish in front of King Edward's
VII's royal box. Thus, the present 26.2-mile distance. And many a present
day marathoner wishes Windsor Castle were just a tad bit nearer to the
King's box when they find themselves doing the merciless march over the last
mile of a marathon.
With its rising popularity, marathoners all have their
unique stories about their races. I've been know to tell the one where I
had a severe calf cramp from two miles on; encountered gale force winds of
sixty miles per hour in whichever direction the run was heading; struggled
through hail, snow, thunderstorms and locusts at various times during the
race; had a body temperature of 103 degrees and had just gotten over walking
pneumonia; my feet were bleeding from blisters halfway through the race;
there were no aid stations as the volunteers didn't show; I couldn't see my
split times because my contacts popped out at mile three; I had Montezuma's
Revenge requiring twenty two bathroom breaks and the run was dramatically
uphill at all times. Yet, despite all these obstacles, I persevered in the
face of seemingly insurmountable adversity and set my PR by 6 minutes. It's
my story and I'm sticking to it.
If any other runner tells you a similar seemingly
implausible story - - well, you just nod your head approvingly because you
weren't there. For no matter what level of adversity a marathoner
encountered, they did indeed achieve something that will change them
Of course not in the manner of Pheidippides and how his
marathon tragically altered things. Imagine if only he'd said, "Hey you
Deiopholese, I've got a bunion. How's about you running back to Athens to
tell them the good news of our victory!"
But he didn't and, as they say, the rest is history.
This story and more in Bob Schwartz's New book: I Run, Therefore I Am - NUTS!