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The first marathon

April 2, 2010

You might know the story of Pheidippides. In 490BC, Pheidippides – a herald – ran from a battlefield near the town of Marathon in Greece to Athens to announce that the Greeks had been victorious over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. This decisive battle forced the Persians to retreat and abandon their first invasion of Greece. Which is perhaps the reason Pheidippides’s final run, to deliver the message ‘We have won’ before promptly dying on the spot from exhaustion has stuck in the popular imagination.

Painting of Pheidippides.
Image via Wikipedia

And so 26.2 miles became known as the distance required to kill a man (actually, the classic Marathon-to-Athens race takes a slight detour to reach 26.2 miles, because Pheidippides’s run was 40km – just under 25 miles). Now it’s common practice to smugly announce that nowadays recovery and hydration strategies are much more advanced. Oh Pheidippides, you goofball…

However, when you consider that the messenger ran the 240km (150 miles) from Athens to Sparta in two days to fetch troops before running back to Athens, he’s not such a wimp. (Of course, details are sketchy, but given that the Battle of Marathon lasted around 5 days, he would have had only a week of so at most to recover from running 75 miles a day over mountainous terrain.)

And sure, you can always pick holes in accounts of events this historic. There’s even some doubt about whether Pheidippides existed, or whether he was an artistic addition several hundred years after the event. Either way, his death is celebrated with each marathon – which, ironically, must have been one of his least extreme challenges that week.

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