The legendary origins of the Marathon race

Contrary to popular belief, the Marathon race was not one of the events included in the Ancient Olympics programme. Actually, the long-distance road race we now know as the Marathon was first introduced in the Modern Olympic Games of 1896 in Athens, although the long-distance race does in fact commemorate the heroic run of Phidippides, mentioned by the fifth-century BC Greek historian Herodotus.

There are several versions of this legend. According to one of them, Phidippides ran a gruelling 250 kilometres in two days, mostly over uneven mountainous terrain. The Persian army had landed at Marathon and the small Athenian army was in dire need of help. Phidippides, the Greek’s best runner, was sent to request backup from the Spartans, 225 kilometres (140 miles) away.

As luck would have it, the Spartans’ religion dictated that they could not send their army to battle until the moon was full, so Phidippides had to run back to Athens the next day (another 225 kilometres!) to deliver the bad news. The Athenian army (including Phiddipides) set off immediately to Marathon and fought bravely, eventually defeating the Persians.

Phiddipides was then sent from the Marathon battlefield back to Athens to announce the victory. Despite the punishing days of running and fighting he had endured, our hero rose to the challenge, delivering the victorious message at Athens with his last breath. After this Phiddipides died from sheer exhaustion, having surpassed the limits of human endurance. The distance between Marathon and Athens is approximately 42 kilometres, or 26.2 miles, the modern distance for the modern Marathon race that now commemorates Phiddipides’ feat.