Marathon History: Pheidippides Runs

Marathon history originates with the legend of Pheidippides (sometimes spelled as Philippides or Phidippides), ancient Greek warrior and messenger. In days lacking instant messaging, couriers where used to send urgent messages.

feet running

These men were not your familiar FedEx® couriers. No, these men were “runners” in the strictest sense of the word. They actually ran over rocky and mountainous countryside, enduring distances and conditions that animals were unable to complete.

In the story, Pheidippides was sent from the Greek city of Marathon to Sparta in the year 490 BC. His mission was to ask for help against the invading Persians. Our hero covered the distance of 150 miles or 240 kilometers in two days. It is said that he then ran back and participated in the Battle of Marathon.

Following victory, legend has it that Pheidippides was then sent the 25 miles to Athens to bring word of the Persians' defeat, only to collapse and die after delivering his message. Other accounts say it was another runner messenger and not Pheidippides that made this final run.*  Nevertheless, it is this run that inspired the modern day marathon race.

The first athletic event was brought to the world stage at the 1896 Athens Olympics. The race meant to honor the Greek hero, was run between the cities of Marathon and Athens. This first race, a distance of approximately 25 miles, was won by Spyridon Louis in a time of 2 hours 58 minutes 50 seconds.

The Standard Marathon Distance

The standard marathon distance is 26 miles 385 yards or 42.195 kilometers requiring a marathon training schedule to not just complete, but to compete. The early Olympic marathons did not operate at a set distance. Although all aimed for 25 miles, they varied depending on the city and route used making standardization a necessity. The standard was established from the route of the 1908 London Olympic Games and took effect from 1924.

Women's Marathon History

Women were not initially permitted to participate in the grueling marathon. Not until the Los Angeles 1984 Summer Olympics did we get to play too. It was Joan Benoit, of the United States that took that race on home soil, in a time of 2 hours 24 minutes and 52 seconds.

The men’s Olympic marathon event is traditionally held on the last day and often in conjunction with the Closing Ceremonies. The men arrive into a packed stadium of cheering energy to push them past any exhaustion. The experience, I am sure, is one that lasts forever. I always get a lump in my throat from the overwhelming emotion of the moment. The men have the pinnacle event of the Olympics.

Not to take this away from men, but one day, I hope we will see the Women’s Olympic Marathon event held up to the same reverence. Whether man or woman, as a society we honor our athletes. Those that strive for finely tuned athletic performance are an inspiration.


*    New Age encyclopedia, copyright 1981 by Lexicon Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-7172-0712-9

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