Through lowlands where red poppies dance with sea winds and goldfinches play in olive trees, "the sacred route" begins. It is a two-lane unshouldered road out of this rural village in southern Greece. It leads 26 miles into Athens, after passing southwest through the Attic towns of Nea Makri and Agios Andreas that lie off the Gulf of Marathon and under the mountains of Dionysius.

The peaks are minor compared with the highest of the runner's high: covering the steps of Pheidippides, the Greek message carrier. In 490 B.C., he ran to the ancient capital with the news that the Athenian warriors had defeated the invading Persians on the Plains of Marathon. "Enikesamen!" he announced. "We conquered."

Moslems go to Mecca, Hindus to the Ganges and true-believer runners pilgrim their way to Marathon. For our faith in play, we award ourselves the inner T-shirt of spiritual kinship with Pheidippides. Belief is needed to counter the schismatics who say that not only did he not exist, but if he did he never ran to Athens. The Athenians, some historians have argued, were a land army with horses, so why would a general send a courier by foot? Runners deal with that with an obvious answer. In the hot September weather when the three-hour Battle of Marathon was fought, leg power was more reliable in pounding out the miles than horsepower.

What we can't deal with is the legend that Pheidippides dropped dead at his finish line. This personal worst turned up in Plutarch in the first century and in a poem by Robert Browning in the 19th. In a rare medical finding that only a British poet could devise, Browning diagnosed Pheidippides' alleged collapse as a coronary induced by happiness: "Joy in his blood bursting his heart."

Whether myth, yarn or reality, Pheidippides lifted Marathon from the map and sent it to the top of every runner's Promethean wish list. To run in the Boston marathon is nostalgic, in the New York marathon, exotic. To be in Marathon, Greece, is to touch the eternal, to remember an exchange in "Report to Greco." Nikos Kazantazakis asked the ghost of his grandfather for guidance to life. "Reach what you can, my child," came the answer. Kazantzakis said that wasn't enough, he wanted a sterner "more Cretan" answer. The ghost complied: "Reach for what you cannot."

The reaching in Marathon begins in a modest walled courtyard dominated by a shoulder-high marble monument dedicated to Olympic athletes. In the Olympiade of Athens in 1896 -- the year the games were reconvened and the winner was Spiridon Louis, a Greek -- the race, as with all the Marathon marathons to follow, began at the monument. It ended with a lap at the Panathinaikon Stadium in Athens.

Down the road from Marathon, at the three-mile mark, is the tomb of the unknown warrior. It is actually a burial mound, 30 feet high, 200 yards around and boned with remains of 192 Athenian dead. Farther along the course is a German cemetery from World War II. This modern necropolis is a silent testament that war still takes its toll.

I ran out of Marathon under a high afternoon sun. Apparently, sentimentalists like me regularly show up. Villagers in Nea Makri waved and clapped as I passed, as though civic cheerfulness was part of the debt the town paid for its honored location. The real waving occurs every April when the International Athens Peace Marathon is staged, a no-entry-fee event that began in 1972. No other place on earth is more suitable to getting the answer to the irritant that runners are ever asked, Why don't you smile? They do, but on the inside. Plato, in "Laws," wrote that "Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, singing and dancing."

My own Plato this afternoon was John Psiakis, an Athenian and an official of the Hellenic Amateur Athletic Association. He is 74, as lean as Achilles, and he has pursued the noble Hellenic calling of teaching and coaching. As an athlete, he was a member of the Greek Olympic team in 1936. On the drive out to Marathon, we talked about the future of the Olympics. I put myself in the camp of those who believe the games should be grounded in Greece. They began here, they flourished here, and to keep the commercialists under control -- which they were not in Los Angeles two years ago and won't be in Seoul two years hence -- they should be returned here. Psiakis, as patient as Mentor with a sophomore, said he was familiar with that argument, but he didn't agree with it: "The Olympics belong to the world. It is not our property. The games will be here in 1996, after Korea and Paris. We will have our turn."

The ancient Greeks would probably have sided with Psiakis. Socrates, the least nationalistic of the philosophers, said that he was neither a Greek nor an Athenian but a citizen of the world.

I had that feeling during the six or seven miles that I ran on the Marathon course. The most hallowed country road of them all really belongs to no country. I hadn't thought of that before I came, but I take it with me as I leave. The games, singing and dancing that Plato wrote about are universals that no one can own but everyone can celebrate.