What Is the Marathon?
The marathon is a modern road race first staged at the revival of the Olympic Games at Athens, Greece, in 1896. It was founded in honor of the Greek soldier Pheidippides, who is supposed to have run from Marathon to Athens, a distance of 22 miles and 1,470 yards, in 490 B.C. to bring the news of his countrymen’s victory over the Persians.
The name Marathon comes from the legend of Philippides or Pheidippides. The legend states that he was sent from the battlefield to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon (in which he had just fought), which took place in August or September, 490 BC. It is said that he ran the entire distance without stopping and burst into the assembly, exclaiming “we have won!”, before collapsing and dying.
The account of the run from Marathon to Athens first appears in Plutarch’s On the Glory of Athens in the 1st century AD, which quotes from Heraclides Ponticus’s lost work, giving the runner’s name as either Thersipus of Erchius or Eucles. Lucian of Samosata (2nd century AD) also gives the story, but names the runner Philippides (not Pheidippides).
There is debate about the historical accuracy of this legend. The Greek historian Herodotus, the main source for the Greco-Persian Wars, mentions Philippides as the messenger who ran from Athens to Sparta asking for help, and then ran back, a distance of over 240 kilometres (150 mi) each way. In some Herodotus manuscripts, the name of the runner between Athens and Sparta is given as Philippides.
Herodotus makes no mention of a messenger sent from Marathon to Athens, and relates that the main part of the Athenian army, having fought and won the grueling battle, and fearing a naval raid by the Persian fleet against an undefended Athens, marched quickly back from the battle to Athens, arriving the same day.
In 1879, Robert Browning wrote the poem Pheidippides. Browning’s poem, his composite story, became part of late 19th century popular culture and was accepted as a historic legend. Mount Pentelicus stands between Marathon and Athens, which means that if Philippides actually made his famous run after the battle, he had to run around the mountain, either to the north or to the south.
The latter and more obvious route matches almost exactly the modern Marathon-Athens highway, which follows the lay of the land southwards from Marathon Bay and along the coast, then takes a gentle but protracted climb westwards towards the eastern approach to Athens, between the foothills of Mounts Hymettus and Penteli, and then gently downhill to Athens proper.
This route, as it existed when the Olympics were revived in 1896, was approximately 40 kilometres (25 mi) long, and this was the approximate distance originally used for marathon races. However, there have been suggestions that Philippides might have followed another route: a westward climb along the eastern and northern slopes of Mount Penteli to the pass of Dionysos, and then a straight southward downhill path to Athens. This route is considerably shorter, some 35 kilometres (22 mi), but includes a very steep initial climb of more than 5 kilometres (3.1 mi).
Appropriately, the first winner of the marathon race was a Greek, Spyros Louis. In 1924 the Olympic marathon distance was standardized at 26 miles, 385 yards. But other marathon courses may differ in length, so the International Amateur Athletic Federation does not list a world record time for the event. It is a fascinating race because neither age nor training seems to play a vital part in winning it. The South African Comrades’ Marathon (54 miles and 1,100 yards) was won in 1922 by Arthur Newton at the age of 39.
The Boston Athletic Association Marathon was won by 19-year-old Japanese in 1951. Long-distance training would seem to be essential for the race. But in the 1952 Olympic Games, Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia set an Olympic record of 2 hours, 23 minutes, 3.2 seconds, although he had never run the distance before. Zatopek’s record was broken in 1960 by the Ethiopian, Abebe Bikila, who covered the distance, barefooted, in 2hours, 15 minutes, 16.2 seconds. In the next Olympic Games, four years later, running with shoes that time, he again broke the world record, with a time of 2 hours, 12 minutes, 11.2 seconds.