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Running Man

Twenty-five hundred years ago, a runner delivered news that would mark the beginning of the modern world — and with it, the Olympic Marathon. Today, one unrepentantly out-of-shape writer travels to Greece to retrace his footsteps. In the process, he finds a nation transformed. (And foot pain. Lots of foot pain.)

Author GRANT STODDARD

ILLUSTRATION BY JOSH COCHRAN

FORTY-FIVE MINUTES after we leave central Athens, at about 9 a.m., the ticket collector on my bus tells me I’ve reached my destination.

“Here?” I say. “Here,” he confirms, and points over my shoulder. “Can walk. Is near.”

As the bus pulls away, I wonder if something got lost in translation — this doesn’t look quite right. After walking along the highway in the middle of nowhere for some time, I pass a gardener who verifies that I’m getting warmer and vaguely gestures over yonder, to the site of the Battle of Marathon. The ramifications of what happened on this fertile plain 2,500 years ago are so colossal, so far-reaching that I can scarcely believe how inconspicuous the site is. I’ve seen more enthusiastic signage for giant balls of twine.

I head off through farmland, olive groves and clusters of upscale villas before eventually stumbling upon a fenced-in field dotted with slender Mediterranean cypress trees. I follow the fence around the perimeter and pay three euros to get inside.

I’m the one and only visitor this morning, and the atmosphere is incredibly tranquil. In the middle of the field is a burial mound containing the remains of the 192 citizen-soldiers of Athens, called hoplites, who gave their lives in the battle. The mound doesn’t look like much, but standing in front of it gives me the most profound feeling of awe: I’m very near the spot where, in 490 B.C., an army of 9,000 Athenians and 1,000 of their allies from the town of Plataea faced off against a much larger force of Persian invaders and, against all odds, won. The feat brought an end to Persia’s first invasion of central Greece and would inspire other Greek city-states to victory at the similarly mismatched battles of Thermopylae (ab-tastically rendered in the film 300) and Salamis 10 years later.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the Battle of Marathon in the scope of world history. The Greek victory helped safeguard Athenian democracy a mere 18 years after its birth, protecting the very conditions under which Socrates, Plato and Aristotle would soon codify Western philosophy. This burgeoning dēmokratía inspired the ideals of the Roman Republic and every society that’s sought self-governance ever since.

Another, more curious legacy of the battle is an extremely popular running race with an unlikely length of 26 miles, 385 yards: the marathon. Getting to the bottom of that one — and retracing the fabled original route — is why I’m here.

ACCORDING TO LEGEND (which is disputed by historians), as the surviving Persians fled to their ships after the Battle of Marathon, a long-distance runner named Pheidippides was dispatched to take the unexpected good news to Athens, some 25 miles southwest of the battlefield. Despite having just participated in the fight himself, he ran the entire way without stopping, burst into the assembly of Athens’ leaders and managed to blurt out, “We have won!” before keeling over, dead.

Now, I’m not trying to invite a similar fate, but my preparation for the run has been, to say the least, casual. As the weeks that I should have spent training came and went, I reasoned that historical inspiration alone would see me through, horrifying friends who had actually trained for marathons. Nevertheless, pondering the speciousness of the legend as I stand there on the battlefield is sapping my morale. I realize that the sun is getting stronger by the second. It’s 10:15 and already pushing 90 degrees. Well, there’s no time like the present. As I turn toward Athens and tentatively put one foot in front of the other, I begin listening to Herodotus’ accounts of the Persian Wars on my iPhone. The audiobook, while abridged, is over four hours long, giving me an outside chance, I figure, of finishing the run before the tale is told.

I’m not on the road long before I see signs, placed every few miles, that tell me I’m on the route of the Athens Classic Marathon. It was first run in 1896 as the showpiece event of the inaugural modern Olympic Games. Organizers of the revived Olympics wanted an exciting finale that, like the games themselves, harkened back to the glory of classical Greece. Playing off the run of Pheidippides, they devised an event that proved immediately popular, especially among Greeks who were proudly acquainted with the legend. The marathon began near the battlefield and ended in Athens’ Panathinaiko Stadium, rebuilt in resplendent marble on the site of the original stadium dating from the sixth century B.C.; this turned out to be a distance of 24.9 miles. The home crowd was understandably ecstatic when a Greek water carrier, Spyridon “Spyros” Louis, won, coming in at a respectable two hours and 58 minutes.

The now standard 26 miles, 385 yards, was initially run in 1908, when London hosted its first Olympics. Organizers decided the race would begin at Windsor Castle and end at the Olympic Stadium in Shepherd’s Bush, a distance of 25 miles or so. Complaints about cobblestones and tram lines caused the course to be lengthened, as did a revised starting point and finish line. Despite all the 11th-hour changes, though, the 1908 Olympic marathon was a huge success, sparking marathon mania the world over. The first seven Olympiads saw six different distances used, ranging from 24.85 to 26.56 miles, but in 1921 it was decided that the distance used in London would be the standard. It’s been the length used in the 91 years and countless marathons since.

OF COURSE, modern-day marathoners enjoy the benefit of food and drink stations, medics with numbing spray for aching joints and, most important, an entire car-free side of the highway with two lanes of asphalt at their disposal. But like Pheidippides himself, I’m running solo, and as such am presented with a few extra challenges. The highway is intermittently busy with cars and trucks, which often careen onto the shoulder. Fearing death, I find myself running on a very narrow strip at the side of the road. The strip switches from cobbles to paving slabs to dirt lined with clusters of thorny bushes, and sometimes disappears completely for a hundred yards or so. When this happens, I ratchet up my courage, sprint onto the shoulder and hope the drivers behind me are paying attention. Every once in a while people pay too much attention: A minivan pulls up alongside me and its troop of preteen girls hoots and hollers, likely with sarcasm. I originally tinkered with the idea of running in hoplite garb; this high-pitched haranguing assures me that I’ve made the right decision not to.

After entering the town of Nea Makri, I find my canter has become a trot, and by the time I get to the port town of Rafina over an hour later, I’m down to a brisk walk. “I’ll pick it up again soon,” I tell myself, but my knees and feet are beginning to falter. I’m barely a third of the way there, and I’m starting to see why my friends were so aghast at my nonchalance. Also dispiriting: The countryside has changed from majestic, sword-and-sandal-movie vistas of scrubby mountains, plains and rugged coastline to a sprawl of car dealerships, kiosks, coffee shops and strip malls.

My flagging spirits lift when I encounter a statue of Pheidippides on the side of the road near Rafina and stop to take a closer look. In this particular rendering, he appears boyish, wearing a skirt of leather strips, his bronze and oak shield by his side and his outstretched hand holding a rolled parchment that bears fresh news of the Athenian victory. The next Pheidippides statue that I happen upon is several miles farther along, in the town of Pikermi. This time the runner is quite naked and set not on the side of the highway but in the median, facing in the direction of the “Glorious City.”

By the time I leave the town of Palini and make my way to the outskirts of Athens, I’m a little worse for wear. My knees ache, my feet are a mass of blisters and my thighs are chafed. Old Audiobook Herodotus has long since wrapped up his tale and I’m now using my phone’s GPS to push myself resolutely onward: Twenty miles down, just five more to go. Pheidippides may have had the fate of Western civilization on his shoulders, but at least he didn’t have to worry about international data-roaming charges.

The closer I get to Athens’ center, the more I see evidence of the unrest that’s been taking place here over the past year. There are posters and graffiti protesting the proposed austerity measures, and they increase in number as I limp into Syntagma Square in central Athens. This is where many of the protests and demonstrations have been happening. Overlooking the square is a neoclassical building that houses the Greek Parliament, the focal point for the protesters’ ire. In front of the building is a marble relief of a dead or dying hoplite warrior, naked except for his helmet and shield. This is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but the old Athenian I ask about it is quite sure of the warrior’s identity. “Is Pheidippides,” he says. “He helped save Greece.”

Seeing this, I can’t help drawing parallels between the problems Greece faces now and those it confronted 2,500 years ago, when grappling with an existential threat that had huge repercussions for the rest of the world. At the time of this writing, everyone is watching to see whether Greece will be the first nation to jump (or be pushed) from the eurozone. If that happens, Greece will revert to the drachma, a currency that was in use at the birth of Athenian democracy two and a half millennia ago. Walking through the square, I notice an old man selling kilos of drachma for euros; I wonder whether he’d be better off waiting to see how this thing plays out.

Rather than head toward the stadium, which is the end point of the Athens Classic, I limp toward the Agora, at the foot of the Acropolis. This is partly because it’s the public meeting place that Pheidippides would have made a beeline for, but mostly because it’s where my hotel is located and I’m beginning to physically break down. “We have won,” I say when I get there and to no one in particular. A gaggle of German tourists all look at me as if I’ve gone mad. Anticlimactic? Sort of. It’s not until later, when I fall into bed at the Ochre and Brown boutique hotel, that I really feel a sense of victory. One that lingers when I awake, some 15 hours later.

GRANT STODDARD, a writer living in Vancouver, has invested in a great pair of running shoes and arch-supporting insoles.

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