I recently listened to a Rich Roll podcast with Dean Karnazes. They discussed Dean’s new book, The Road to Sparta. I immediately went to my local bookstore and picked up a copy. Bonus of living in the same town as Dean and running a lot of the same trails (when I’m not lost on them), it was an autographed copy!
It is a fantastic book and once I started it, I didn’t put it down. It was a fast read, yet full of really interesting facts about Dean, his journey, and how the history of the Marathon is not quite what we think.
Here are a few of my favorite facts from the book:
- The word Marathon literally means fields of fennel – because that’s what the Persians found when they landed at the Bay of Marathon
- The Athenians were outnumbered when the Persians set up military encampment in Marathon.
- They sent Pheidippides, a hemerodromos (the Greek word for professional runner/messenger), to Sparta for reinforcements. This was about 140 miles.
- When Pheidippides reached Sparta, the Spartans bid him farewell and told him that in 6 days time – when the moon was at its fullest, they would march for battle.
- He took a brief nap and set out on a return trip of another 140 miles back to Athens to let his countrymen know about the Spartan delay. In 6 days, the Athenians might already be slaughtered by the Persians. It took Pheidippides 2 days.
- When he arrived, he was informed that after he’d been dispatched for Sparta, the Athenians deployed to Marathon. This meant Pheidippides must run another 25 miles to Marathon to inform those Athenians about the Spartan delay.
- Had Pheidippides not arrived in Marathon & delivered his news about the delayed Spartan departure, the Greeks would have retreated back to Athens only to wait in vain for the no-show Spartans. The Athenians would have been demolished by the Persians.
- Back in Marathon, General Miltiades decided that the Athenians would attack the Persians before they awoke and had time to set sail. Homer discusses in detail the savagery of this battle in The Iliad.
- The Greeks had to dispatch a messenger to Athens to deliver news from the battle. Pheidippides must run from Marathon back to Athens. His final act, crying out, “Nike! Nike! Nenikamen!” (Victory! Victory! Rejoice, we conquer!)
If Pheidippides had failed, there would likely be no Parthenon, Pythagoras & his theorem, modern engineering would have suffered, and we would have no marathon.
Over time, the 24.85 distance from Marathon to Athens was changed to 26.2. This additional distance (one mile and 385 yards) was added so that the King of England and the royal family could have the marathon of the 1908 Olympic Games finish in front of their viewing box at the newly constructed White City Stadium.
That said, Pheidippides didn’t really die from running 24.85 miles. He died from running over 300. And think about it – this was before chafe resistant fabric, electrolyte tabs, cushioned running shoes and even water bottles!