The Complete True Story of the First Marathon

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Author and ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes ran 153 miles from Athens to Sparta powered only by figs, olives, and cured meats — the endurance diet you might have found in 490 B.C.E., when the route was originally run. Karnazes recounts his experience in his new book, The Road to Sparta, published by Rodale Books. Excerpted here is the chapter “Origins of a Classic,” taking a deep dive into the true history of the original marathon.

A student of history, British Royal Air Force Wing Commander John Foden was fascinated with early Greek writings. A prodigious reader, he enjoyed delving into the mysterious yarns and torrid tales of the ancient Greek record and exploring the colorful accounts of pre-Christian Hellenic lore. Such was the stuff that captured his fancy.

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Commander Foden also happened to be an avid runner, and in 1978 he completed his first marathon. He found the experience entrancing and began running competitively, eventually going on to win a silver medal in the marathon at the World Masters Athletic Championships in New Zealand in 1980.

This accomplishment spurred a simple inquiry into the meaning of the word marathon. Thumbing through the Encyclopedia Britannica, he came across a rather esoteric reference to The Histories and the writings of Herodotus, the “Father of History,” as he is known. Intrigued, he pulled A. R. Burns’s translation of The Histories, which was published by Penguin Classics in 1970.

As he read through this modern translation of Herodotus’s writings, one excerpt in particular jumped out at him. This passage spoke about the prelude to the Battle of Marathon and stated:

And first, before they left the city, the generals sent off to Sparta a herald, one Pheidippides, who was by birth an Athenian, and by profession and practice a trained runner.

Wait a minute, he thought, the story everyone was familiar with was that of Pheidippides running from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce Greek victory, a distance of 26.2 miles. A run from Athens to Sparta was something altogether different, much more than a single marathon, more like six marathons stacked one upon the other. Such a distance would be appropriately classified as an ultramarathon, not a marathon. Athens to Sparta represented some 140 or more miles; how was it possible that one man could have done this?

What he read next intrigued Foden even more. Herodotus wrote that Pheidippides completed this journey “the day after he set out,” meaning he covered such a distance in under 2 days’ time. Impossible, Foden thought. He dismissed the notion as fantasy.

But his fascination with what he’d read did not fade. Could it be true? Herodotus was also known in some circles as the “Father of Lies.” Was this one such tall tale, or did Pheidippides really run all the way from Athens to Sparta and arrive the day after setting out?

The hook was set.

It wasn’t easy obtaining a formal RAF expedition grant to do what Commander Foden intended to do. In fact, the presiding Physical Education Officer in charge of authorizing such grants thought the whole proposal little more than a harebrained excuse for a holiday in sunny Greece. Thank- fully, one of the PhDs on staff was also a runner and took an interest in Foden’s project. He helped usher the funding request through the system, and eventually it got green- lighted to proceed. The expedition was scheduled to commence on October 8, 1982.

Foden was able to successfully recruit a team of RAF companions. In total, there were five runners and six support-crew members to provide assistance along the way. They were all set to go, but the trip didn’t get off to a very smooth start. The flights they’d booked from their station in Germany to Athens got cancelled indefinitely. Being a resourceful lad, Commander Foden hired a minibus to transport the group instead. The long drive to Greece was a harrowing adventure in its own right, as the route passed through what was then Communist-occupied Yugoslavia.

Much of the time they’d set aside for reconnaissance in Greece was eaten up by the lengthy and time-consuming drive, so the run was forced to commence without much advance scouting. With a resplendent sunrise silhouetting the Acropolis in the background, five men set out to prove the stated purpose of the enterprise, that Herodotus’s telling of Pheidippides’s story in The Histories was not a myth.

The men tried their best to follow as close an approximation to Pheidippides’s route as they could using the obscure references made by Herodotus and a modern map, but for necessity of logistics and van support they needed to rely on established roadways for much of the journey. Some of the trails Pheidippides might have followed were now likely paved over, while other sections were covered in thickets and brushy overgrowth, but the group’s intention was to run to Sparta on a route that as closely as possible mimicked the footsteps of this fabled Greek hemerodromos, all the while not having much detailed information on precisely what this route was.

They encountered innumerable challenges along the way.

First was the unexpected nightmare of having to deal with car traffic and billowing air pollution along the overcrowded roadways of Athens. Greek drivers were unaccustomed to seeing people running alongside the highway, and very few of them realized how terrifying a swiftly passing vehicle could be to a person who was traveling on foot. The five modern-day hemerodromoi had to contend with dense industrial congestion, belching diesel fumes, and the terrifying blasts of car horns assaulting them from every direction.

On the climb through the shantytowns of Dafini, numerous stray dogs, some of whom appeared rabid, rushed out and snapped at them. The five runners initially stuck together, trying to protect one another and covering each other’s backs. Pheidippides, of course, would have had to fend for himself in such instances.

Eventually, tarmac yielded to old, potholed roads and less heavily trafficked gravel pathways. They ran together as a group for quite some distance, but soon they discovered that athletes undertaking an ultramarathon tend to fall into their own unique rhythms. Periods of high energy and troughs of low energy rarely coincide between two runners. By night- fall the group had split up and become considerably separated, each man running at his own comfortable tempo. This made it increasingly difficult for the support vehicles to provide aid and assistance at consistent intervals.

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Perhaps owing to this fact, two of the runners were forced to terminate their efforts along a segment of the Peloponnese coastline. Lacking sustained energy and badly dehydrated, they could no longer continue. This left just three runners on the course, and by morning the following day they had nearly a 60-kilometer spread between them.

Navigating at night and in the gray murk of dawn was tricky. There were more encounters with vicious dogs, and at one point Foden diverted his course to avoid a particular village — out of fear of being attacked by one such creature—and was forced to navigate through freshly plowed fields, his shoes filling with stones and debris. Complicating matters, radio contact between the two support vehicles was lost in the mountains, and their ability to communicate with each other was severed. Each of the runners took different routes, some truer to the landmarks Herodotus described Pheidippides as encountering, while others veered quite a distance from those markers. Their intention had always been to follow as closely as possible in the footsteps of Pheidippides, but they learned that this was nearly impossible to accomplish in practice, especially given their lack of research and reconnaissance beforehand.

Thirty-four and a half hours later, however, the first of the three runners arrived in Sparta. He had followed a nearly direct course and avoided a rather extreme climb up to the summit of a mountaintop, but in circumventing this rather vexing obstacle, he also bypassed one of the clear references Herodotus made in The Histories to Pheidippides being “high above Tegea.”

Commander Foden arrived a bit later, in just under 38 hours of total running time. He had likely run a greater distance than the first arriver and contended with more mountainous terrain, but this was an era prior to the advent of GPS, so neither of them could pinpoint their exact route. The final of the three remaining runners arrived about an hour after Foden.

The expedition culminated in the main square of Sparta, beneath the hulking statue of King Leonidas. Despite dehydration and reports of hallucinations, blisters, horrendous sunburns, and a cumulative weight loss of more than 40 pounds between them, the trio had remarkably completed the journey, and they all did so within 2 days’ time. At last, Herodotus had been vindicated!

It was quite an amazing accomplishment, and they were rightfully celebrated in the Greek press. “RUNNING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF PHEIDIPPIDES!” the headlines read. What they had done was indeed remarkable, especially given the hardships encountered along the way. Foden estimated that he ran about 50 percent of the way on tarmac and 50 percent on unpaved surfaces, and the amount of climbing and descending through the rugged Greek countryside was inestimable, though no doubt extreme. Vans were eventually reloaded and off they set back to Germany.

The mystique of the endeavor impassioned Commander Foden, and in 1983 he cofounded one of the most grueling long-distance footraces in the world, the Spartathlon, an annual 153-mile race from, you guessed it, Athens to Sparta. More than 30 years later, however, this race remains an obscure, if not entirely unheard of, event even amongst marathon runners.

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