Soon to be Chicago Marathon 2015 runner myself, we hold dear the marathon’s very own creation myth: a Greek foot-messenger soldier by the name of Pheidippides was sent from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon. In his book,1:59: The Sub-Two-Hour Marathon is Within Reach, Philip Maffetone writes: “He supposedly ran the entire distance without stopping and burst into the Athens senate, uttering these final words: “Masters-victory is ours!” He then collapsed and died due to exhaustion.”
First documented in a prose A Slip of the Tongue in Greeting, a messenger running from Marathon to Athens to announce victory, John A. Lucian writes:
[…] Philippides, the one who acted as courier, is said to have used it first in our sense when he brought the news of victory from Marathon and addressed the magistrates in session when they were anxious how the battle had ended; “Joy to you, we’ve won” he said, and there and then he died, breathing his last breath with the words “Joy to you”.
The traditional story relates that Pheidippides (530 BC–490 BC), an Athenian herald who was sent to Sparta to request help when the Persians landed at Marathon, Greece. He ran about 240 km (150 mi) in two days and then another 40 km (25 mi) from the battlefield near Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC with the word “We have won”.
And then in 1879, Robert Browning, a nineteenth century English poet wrote the poem Pheidippides:
First I salute this soil of the blessed, river and rock!
Gods of my birthplace, demons and heroes, honor to all!
Then I name thee, claim thee for our patron, co-equal in praise
Ay, with Zeus the Defender, with Her of the ægis and spear!
Also, ye of the bow and the buskin, praised be your peer,
Now, henceforth, and forever, —O latest to whom I upraise
Hand and heart and voice! For Athens, leave pasture and flock!
Present to help, potent to save, Pan—patron I call!
Archons of Athens, topped by the tettix, see, I return!
See, ’tis myself here standing alive, no spectra that speaks!
Crowned with the myrtle, did you command me, Athens and you,
“Run, Pheidippides, run and race, reach Sparta for aid!
Persia has come, we are here, where is She?” Your command I obeyed,
Ran and raced: like stubble, some field which a fire runs through,
Was the space between city and city: two days, two nights did I burn
Over the hills, under the dales, down pits and up peaks.
Into their midst I broke: breath served but for “Persia has come!
Persia bids Athens proffer slaves’-tribute, water and earth;
Razed to the ground is Eretria.—but Athens? shall Athens, sink,
Drop into dust and die—the flower of Hellas utterly die,
Die with the wide world spitting at Sparta, the stupid, the stander-by?
Answer me quick,—what help, what hand do you stretch o’er destruction’s brink?
How,—when? No care for my limbs!—there’s lightning in all and some—
Fresh and fit your message to bear, once lips give it birth!”
O my Athens—Sparta love thee? did Sparta respond?
Every face of her leered in a furrow of envy, mistrust,
Malice,—each eye of her gave me its glitter of gratified hate!
Gravely they turned to take counsel, to cast for excuses. I stood
Quivering,—the limbs of me fretting as fire frets, an inch from dry wood:
“Persia has come, Athens asks aid, and still they debate?
Thunder, thou Zeus! Athene, are Spartans a quarry beyond
Swing of thy spear? Phoibos and Artemis, clang them ‘Ye must’!”
No bolt launched from Olumpos! Lo, their answer at last!
“Has Persia come,—does Athens ask aid,—may Sparta befriend?
Nowise precipitate judgment—too weighty the issue at stake!
Count we no time lost time which lags thro’ respect to the Gods!
Ponder that precept of old, ‘No warfare, whatever the odds
In your favor, so long as the moon, half-orbed, is unable to take
Full-circle her state in the sky!’ Already she rounds to it fast:
Athens must wait, patient as we—who judgment suspend.”
Athens,—except for that sparkle,—thy name, I had moldered to ash!
That sent a blaze thro’ my blood; off, off and away was I back,
—Not one word to waste, one look to lose on the false and the vile!
Yet “O Gods of my land!” I cried, as each hillock and plain,
Wood and stream, I knew, I named, rushing past them again,
“Have ye kept faith, proved mindful of honors we paid you erewhile?
Vain was the filleted victim, the fulsome libation! Too rash
Love in its choice, paid you so largely service so slack!
“Oak and olive and bay,—I bid you cease to en-wreathe
Brows made bold by your leaf! Fade at the Persian’s foot,
You that, our patrons were pledged, should never adorn a slave!
Rather I hail thee, Parnes,—trust to thy wild waste tract!
Treeless, herbless, lifeless mountain! What matter if slacked
My speed may hardly be, for homage to crag and to cave
No deity deigns to drape with verdure?—at least I can breathe,
Fear in thee no fraud from the blind, no lie from the mute!”
Such my cry as, rapid, I ran over Parnes’ ridge;
Gully and gap I clambered and cleared till, sudden, a bar
Jutted, a stoppage of stone against me, blocking the way.
Right! for I minded the hollow to traverse, the fissure across:
“Where I could enter, there I depart by! Night in the fosse?
Athens to aid? Tho’ the dive were thro’ Erebos, thus I obey—
Out of the day dive, into the day as bravely arise! No bridge
Better!”—when—ha! what was it I came on, of wonders that are?
There, in the cool of a cleft, sat he—majestical Pan!
Ivy drooped wanton, kissed his head, moss cushioned his hoof;
All the great God was good in the eyes grave-kindly—the curl
Carved on the bearded cheek, amused at a mortal’s awe
As, under the human trunk, the goat-thighs grand I saw.
“Halt, Pheidippides!”—halt I did, my brain of a whirl:
“Hither to me! Why pale in my presence?”! he gracious began:
“How is it,—Athens, only in Hellas, holds me aloof?
“Athens, she only, rears me no fane, makes me no feast!
Wherefore? Than I what godship to Athens more helpful of old?
Ay, and still, and forever her friend! Test Pan, trust me!
Go bid Athens take heart, laugh Persia to scorn, have faith
In the temples and tombs! Go, say to Athens, ‘The Goat-God saith:
When Persia—so much as strews not the soil—Is cast in the sea,
Then praise Pan who fought in the ranks with your most and least,
Goat-thigh to greaved-thigh, made one cause with the free and the bold!’
“Say Pan saith: ‘Let this, foreshowing the place, be the pledge!'”
(Gay, the liberal hand held out this herbage I bear
—Fennel,—I grasped it a-tremble with dew—whatever it bode),
“While, as for thee…” But enough! He was gone. If I ran hitherto—
Be sure that the rest of my journey, I ran no longer, but flew.
Parnes to Athens—earth no more, the air was my road;
Here am I back. Praise Pan, we stand no more on the razor’s edge!
Pan for Athens, Pan for me! I too have a guerdon rare!
Then spoke Miltiades. “And thee, best runner of Greece,
Whose limbs did duty indeed,—what gift is promised thyself?
Tell it us straightway,—Athens the mother demands of her son!”
Rosily blushed the youth: he paused: but, lifting at length
His eyes from the ground, it seemed as he gathered the rest of his strength
Into the utterance—”Pan spoke thus: ‘For what thou hast done
Count on a worthy reward! Henceforth be allowed thee release
From the racer’s toil, no vulgar reward in praise or in pelf!’
“I am bold to believe, Pan means reward the most to my mind!
Fight I shall, with our foremost, wherever this fennel may grow,—
Pound—Pan helping us—Persia to dust, and, under the deep,
Whelm her away forever; and then,—no Athens to save,—
Marry a certain maid, I know keeps faith to the brave,—
Hie to my house and home: and, when my children shall creep
Close to my knees,—recount how the God was awful yet kind,
Promised their sire reward to the full—rewarding him—so!”
Unforeseeing one! Yes, he fought on the Marathon day:
So, when Persia was dust, all cried “To Akropolis!
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
‘Athens is saved, thank Pan,’ go shout!” He flung down his shield,
Ran like fire once more: and the space ‘twixt the Fennel-field
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
Till in he broke: “Rejoice, we conquer!” Like wine thro’ clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died—the bliss!
In the lengthy poem’s final stanza, Robert Browning offers:
So is Pheidippides happy forever,—the noble strong man
Who could race like a god, bear the face of a god, whom a god loved so well,
He saw the land saved he had helped to save, and was suffered to tell
Such tidings, yet never decline, but, gloriously as he began,
So to end gloriously—once to shout, thereafter be mute:
“Athens is saved!”—Pheidippides dies in the shout for his mead.
It was this poem that inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin and other founders of the modern Olympic games to invent a running race of 42 km called the Marathon.
“When the modern Olympics were birthed two decades later in Athens in 1896,” Dr. Maffetone writes, “the organizers wanted a unique event that could recall the ancient glory of Greece.” The winner was Spridon Louis, a Greek water-carrier, who won in a time of 2:24:52. The total distance, however, was 24.85 miles. So how did the marathon end up becoming 26.2 miles? Dr. Maffetone explains:
“At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, the marathon distance was lengthened to twenty-six miles to cover the ground from Windsor Castle to White City stadium, with another 385 yards tacked on so the race could finish in front of King Edward VII’s royal box.”
And yet, twenty-six miles and 385 yards wasn’t immediately adopted as the official marathon race distance; it often fluctuated between twenty-four and twenty-five miles. Philip Maffetone adds:
“For the next Olympics in 1912, the marathon was shortened to 40.2 kilometers (24.98 miles) and revised again to 42.75 kilometers (26.56 miles) for 1920 Olympics.”
In fact, of the first seven Olympic marathons, there were six different marathon distances between 40 kilometers and 42.75 kilometers.
“It wasn’t until the 1924 Olympics in Paris that the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) established the official marathon distance as 26.2 miles.”
According to IAAF Rule 240, “The distance converted into miles, 26.2187, has been rounded to 26.22 in table (a difference of about 2 yards).”
So there you have it!