Marine Corps Marathon marks 2,500th anniversary of Pheidippides' historic run

By Jim Hage
Friday, October 29, 2010; 11:29 PM

The story of the world's most famous marathoner may be more apocryphal than historic, but the athletic movement he inspired could be hitting its stride exactly 2,500 years later. On Sunday, more than 20,000 runners will attempt to emulate Pheidippides' run - minus his signature gack at the finish - in the 35th Marine Corps Marathon, a 26.2-mile tour of Washington's monuments.

According to legend, Pheidippides ran 40 kilometers from the site of the Battle of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians in 490 B.C. Pheidippides, after uttering some version of "Rejoice, we conquer," then died on the spot. The first written record of Pheidippides' exploits, however, didn't appear until the Roman era writers Plutarch and Lucian recorded them more than 600 years later.

"The run is indeed a legend, and a rather late legend at that . . . [but] the historical reality is actually far more impressive," said Richard Billows, Columbia University professor and author of "Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization."

Fact or fiction, Marine Corps Marathon officials have embraced the story of Pheidippides and incorporated a celebration of the battle's 2,500th anniversary into this year's event. A torch, lit from the flame of the Tomb of Athenians in Marathon via its sister city, Hopkinton, Mass., made its way to Washington last week after stops in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Quantico, Va.

"We're treating this flame like gold," said race director Rick Nealis. "I slept with it in my hotel room in New Jersey on the way down here."

Some might also describe Nealis's race as gold: The marathon sold out 30,000 registration slots in less than six days this past April. During his 17 years on the staff, Nealis has seen the marathon grow to become the fourth largest in the country (measured by number of finishers) and the eighth largest in the world.

Saturday's 10K filled with a record 10,000 runners; even the Kids Run (one mile for ages 6 to 13) is sold out with 3,000 runners. The two-day Health & Fitness Expo at the Washington Convention Center expects to host 90,000 and concludes Saturday.

The Marine Corps is hardly alone in riding the wave of long-distance popularity. Last week the 2011 Boston Marathon, with its relatively stringent qualifying times, filled some 25,000 slots in just more than eight hours. Next weekend, the 41st New York City Marathon likely will break its own record of 43,659 finishers set last year.

So perhaps it is reasonable and hardly presumptuous for the Marines to expand the scope of the pre-race festivities to link marathon running with the very preservation of Western society.

Herodotus mentioned Pheidippides, or more correctly Philippides, according to Billows, as an all-day messenger who before the battle was sent from Athens to run the 140 miles to Sparta and ask for help. Upon reaching his destination on the second day, he was told that the Spartans would not mobilize against the Persians until the full moon one week later. Philippides then ran back to Athens, again in two days, with the news.

"The nearly contemporary historical account has the same runner run from Athens to Sparta and back again, 280 miles in four days," Billows said. "Moreover, the entire Athenian army, after fighting a desperate battle all morning, speed marched the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens to defend the city against a Persian seaborne attack."

Legends and running aside, Billows maintains that had not the vastly outnumbered Greeks outmaneuvered the powerful Persians, Athenian democracy - and all of its subsequent arts, philosophy and culture - would have died in its infancy.

Pheidippides himself, or at least his legend, enjoyed an important boost from historic to popular icon when Robert Browning wrote an 1879 poem about the heroic run: "So to end gloriously - once to shout, thereafter be mute: Athens is saved!"

Seventeen years later, Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, championed inclusion of a marathon in the inaugural Athens Games, even though the longest run in the ancient Olympics was about three miles. On April 10, 1896, 17 men, 13 of them Greek, ran the first Olympic marathon, with native son Spiridon Louis securing his place in history by winning the nearly 25-mile race in 2 hours 58 minutes 50 seconds.

Inspired by that event, John Graham, the U.S. Olympic team manager and a member of the Boston Athletic Association, helped establish the first Boston Marathon on Patriots Day in 1897; John McDermott won the 24.5-mile race in 2:55:10. By 1908, the distance was standardized at 26 miles 385 yards and popularization of the marathon was underway.

So while Pheidippides probably never ran from Marathon to Athens, Sunday's marathoners should be well pleased that it is his legend rather than his more grueling four-day trek that has captured the world's imagination.

"Perhaps the more apt precedent in the context of the Marine Corps Marathon run," Billows said, "are the thousands of Athenian warriors jogging or speed-walking from Athens to Marathon 'as fast as their feet would go.' "

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