Pheidippides was a hero of Ancient Greece, and the central figure in a story that was the inspiration for a modern sporting event, the marathon. In early August, 490 B.C., he ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of a military victory against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon.
But the truth is much more impressive than the legend. He ran not a paltry 26 miles, but 332 miles in five days.
When news reached Athens that the Persians had landed on Greek soil, the Athenians sent Pheidippides, a professional messenger runner, to Sparta to ask for help. In a remarkable feat of running, he covered 140 miles from Athens to Sparta, through several demanding mountain passes, in two days.
The Spartan response, however, was not what the Athenians expected. The Spartans balked and claimed it was not Spartan custom to go to war during the second week of the second new moon of the year, and they could not assist until six more days had passed.
Pheidippides, after a night’s rest, set out to run 140 miles back to Athens to bring the bad news that the Athenians would have to fight alone. On his way back, he was so exhausted he hallucinated and was convinced he conversed with a Greek god named Pan. When he returned to Athens, the Greek commanders were entrenched at Marathon, about 26 miles outside Athens. He ran on to Marathon and delivered the sobering news.
At the conclusion of the battle, Pheidippides famously ran to Athens to announce the surprise victory. He burst into a council meeting, blurted “nenikikamen!” (“Victory is ours!”) and dropped dead of exhaustion. In the last five days he had run an aggregate 332 mileswithout modern-day shoes, gear, gels or technology.
The battle was a turning point in Greek and Western history. The Greek victory made posible the explosion and flourishing of classical Greek culture in the fifth and fourth centuries.
The 26 mile run from Marathon to Athens to announce victory inspired the founders of the modern Olympic Games to invent a running event of 26 miles called the marathon.
Since 1983, there has been an annual footrace from Athens to Sparta, known as the Spartathlon, tracing Pheidippides’ grueling one-way run across 140 miles of rugged Greek countryside. A movie about the Spartathlon can be seen here.
Statue of Pheidippides