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On the Run in Search of a Greek Ghost
James F. Fixx
December 25, 1978
The best-selling author, himself a marathoner, looks into the legend of Pheidippides, the courier who started the whole thing 2,500 years ago when he carried the news of his army's victory from Marathon to Athens
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December 25, 1978

On The Run In Search Of A Greek Ghost

The best-selling author, himself a marathoner, looks into the legend of Pheidippides, the courier who started the whole thing 2,500 years ago when he carried the news of his army's victory from Marathon to Athens

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I am running, sweating hard, down a two-lane road that curls through the dusty slopes of southern Greece. I am pressing, not so much because I want to catch the Greek runner bobbing along a couple of hundred yards ahead of me but because I hope, by my diligent effort, to free myself from the dogged American who for the past 10 miles has been directing an annoying wheeze at my right shoulder blade. The day is fearfully hot. The organizers of this marathon would, it occurs to me, have benefited from some meditations on Diogenes. With perfectly straight faces they swore that the temperature almost never went above 75� F. at this time of year, yet here it is in the mid-80s and still climbing. Only the roadside blankets of poppies and Queen Anne's lace and an occasionally motionless goat seem at home in this Attic inferno. Every few miles an official of the Hellenic Amateur Athletic Federation tries to ease our suffering by offering liquid in paper cups. For the most part, it is a warm orange fluid and when I try to drink some as I run, it sloshes onto my chest and congeals. Before many miles have passed I begin to feel like an orange lollipop left too long in the sun.

Also in the race are Don Kardong, who finished fourth in the 1976 Olympic marathon; Chuck Smead, the silver medalist in the marathon in the 1975 Pan-Am Games, who tuned up by taking a run over Mount Olympus a few days earlier; Dr. Joan Ullyot, an accomplished marathoner and an authority on women's running; and some 250 other competitors. We have all been lured here by the mesmerizing tug of running's most celebrated legend.

That legend concerns Pheidippides, a foot courier who, after the outnumbered Athenian army's astonishing defeat of 30,000 crack Persian warriors on the Plain of Marathon in 490 B.C., carried a message to Athens, some 25 torturous miles to the southwest. Upon his arrival, so the story goes, he announced, "Rejoice! We conquer!" Thereupon, exhausted by the effort of running so far, he died on the spot. Because every modern marathoner is only too familiar with the sense of imminent personal disaster and because the distance Pheidippides is said to have run corresponds so closely with today's official marathon distance of 26.2 miles, he is universally saluted as the patron saint of marathon runners. Our race in Greece—the Spirit of Pheidippides Marathon—was named for him. He turns up in scores of books and magazine articles about running. Jeff Galloway, a former Olympian, has named a brace of sporting-goods stores after him and had the name emblazoned across thousands of T shirts. There is, in short, scarcely a runner alive who does not revere the name Pheidippides.

However, surprisingly little is known about him. Some scholars think he may have been the same Pheidippides who a few days before the Battle of Marathon ran 150 miles in 48 hours to solicit Spartan aid; others say this is a romantic confusion. One modern writer, Xenophon Messinesi, asserts that Pheidippides made his run "in heavy armor," though on what authority, he fails to specify. Other details are similarly sparse. We do not know, for example, how old Pheidippides was, how fast he was, what part of Attica he came from, or anything else in the way of personal details.

There are some aspects of the story of which we can be reasonably certain, however. We know that the Battle of Marathon, which was a consequence of the first Persian effort to invade Greece, occurred in September, a month when nowadays the average maximum temperature in Athens is 83�F. We know, too, that the battle lasted only from breakfast until lunchtime. Finally, we know that an Athenian hemerodromos, or professional foot courier, would almost certainly have chosen much the same course that Kardong, Smead and the rest of us followed, because it hugs the relatively level coast instead of needlessly traversing the mountains further inland.

Beyond that, we can do little but speculate. It is, in fact, hard to resist speculating, because—we may as well face it right now—the Pheidippides story is so patently improbable. Ask yourself: How likely is it, given the fact that thousands of modern marathon runners compete every weekend without mishap, that a trained runner would not only have collapsed but also died? Was the mere announcement of victory so urgent that it demanded effort that cost the messenger his life? Couldn't Pheidippides have run at a less arduous pace and thus have lived to run another day?

These questions nagged at me as I ran along the road from Marathon to Athens, as Pheidippides supposedly had done 2,500 years earlier. The Pheidippides legend had, in fact, troubled me ever since I started running 10 years ago. Now, given the opportunity to retrace the steps the hero is supposed to have taken, I hoped to immerse myself in his achievement and thereby become a sort of spiritual brother to him. If, I reasoned, I could force myself to suffer as he had, and if I could, furthermore, do so in the same rocky setting, I might somehow bridge those 25 centuries. I might then penetrate to the elusive truth of the legend or, at the very least, to some approximation of what Pheidippides' run may have been like. Mine was a study in historical probabilities, based on the hunch that the closer I came to the authentic historical experience, the more I would be able to learn about it.

Three questions were uppermost in my mind:

1) After the Battle of Marathon, was a messenger in fact dispatched to Athens?

2) If such a messenger was dispatched, was he the same person who had earlier run to Sparta?

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