2500 Years

Last spring we made a big fuss about the 25th running of the Big Sur Marathon. It’s a very impressive accomplishment, and our local running community was proud to celebrate the world-class event. Imagine, then, if there were a race that was 100 times older than Big Sur – that would be pretty amazing, right?

Such a race does indeed exist: the Athens Marathon on October 31st, honoring the 2500th anniversary of the world’s first recognized marathon, run by a messenger of the Athenian army in 490 B.C.

According to popular legend – it’s hard to verify how much is actually true – the mighty Persians, with the most formidable military force the world had ever seen, invaded Greece with more than 25,000 soldiers, and were met by the undermanned Athenian army on the plains near a town called Marathon. The 10,000 Athenian soldiers didn’t stand a chance.

However, Greek General Miltiades and his courageous troops had other ideas: they surprised the Persians by going on the offensive, and the Athenians ultimately scored one of the most shocking and decisive battles in world history. As military historian Edward Creasy explains, it “forever broke the spell of Persian invincibility…and secured for mankind the intellectual treasures of Athens, the growth of free institutions, and the liberal enlightenment of the Western World.”

In other words, it was kind of a big deal. But since civilization was more than 2490 years away from cell towers, texting, or Tweeting, news of the triumphant battle was communicated the VERY old-fashioned way: a messenger soldier was dispatched to run from Marathon to Athens to tell his countrymen about the great victory.

You’ve probably heard of the messenger, Pheidippides, whose name is now immortalized in Greek lore. You’re also probably familiar with the message he delivered: Nike, a one-word phrase meaning “victory”. There’s a little shoe company in Oregon that’s made quite a name for themselves with that word.

The end of the story, as you’d expect from the Greeks, isn’t nearly as pleasant: Pheidippides died in the town square immediately after delivering his famous message. And the whole incident would have been forgotten completely if not for the historian Lucian, who came along nearly 700 years later and thought the story deserved to be documented.

Most estimates of Pheidippides's fateful run place it around 24.85 miles, and that distance was used for the first “official” marathon event at the modern Olympic Games, held in Greece in 1896. The course ran from Marathon to Athens, re-tracing the famous messenger’s steps as closely as possible.

In the 1908 London Olympics, King Edward VII wanted the race to start in front of her Windsor Castle home, which was roughly an extra 2 miles from the stadium finish area. The resulting course was 26.2 miles, which is now the officially recognized distance – but the marathon is still recognized as a classically Greek event. In fact, runners from all over the world flock to Athens each year to run the city’s marathon in the footsteps of history.

The race sells out 12,000 entries each year, but a few Monterey County runners are lucky enough to be entered in the 2500th anniversary race later this month. But if you can’t make it this year, don’t worry: the 2501st anniversary will probably be cool as well. And it will be one year more historic.

So if you’re a runner who likes to travel – or a traveler who likes to run – make a point to put the oldest and most famous marathon in the world on your to-do list.

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