Until more efficient ways of transport were developed, running was a common way to transfer a message. Especially in times of war it was important to have couriers with strong endurance, who could cover long distances as fast as possible.
One of the most famous battles in world history was the Battle of Marathon, that took place 490 B.C. in Greece. It constituted a landmark and a starting point in the history of civilization.
The traditional story as described by historian Herodotus tells that Pheidippides (530 BC–490 BC) was a message runner in Athens who was sent to Sparta to ask for help to defeat the Persians after their invasion in Marathon, Greece. He ran 246 km (152 mi) in 36 hours.
In 1982 five British RAF officers traveled to Greece on an official expedition and followed the route description of Herodotus to find out or covering 246 kilometers in a day and a half was indeed possible for a human being.
John Foden, at age 56, and 2 other runners completed the distance and the historical Spartathlon race was born.
“Running God” Yiannis Kouros ran the first Spartathlon (246K) from Athens to Sparta in 21h53’40” in 1983 and still holds the course record. Since then the cruel challenge attracts ultra runners every year from all over the world.
Panayiotis Skoulis took a closer look at the history and discovered Pheidippides had run a different route than the Spartathlon course and also that he had run back to Athens again.
When Pheidippides had arrived in Sparta they were celebrating Carneia, a religious festival, which didn’t allow them to assist in any way until several days later, when it would be full moon. So Pheidippides had to run back to Athens to deliver a disappointing message.
This original route of Pheidipides includes passing and returning from Mount Parthenion, where Pheidippides met the god Pan, without night rest.
This implies running 524 kilometers (326 miles) non-stop, from Athens to Sparta, back to Athens and then on to Marathon where the battle took place.
To really run in the footsteps of Pheidippides, Panayiotis Skoulis ran the “Pheidippides Feat” from Athens to Sparta and back, non-stop, in 1992.
Yiannis Kouros ran the Pheidippides Feat twice, in 2005 and 2011 to honor Pheidippides.
And in 2010 Greek marathon runner Maria Polyzou followed the same route as well to celebrate the 2.500 anniversary since the historic battle in Marathon. Maria was the first woman in the world to accomplish this.
Since 2015 the Authentic Phidippides Run Athens – Sparta – Athens 490K is held yearly in November, a race organized by the Athletic and Cultural Club Athenian Runners (ATHINAIOI DROMEIS), in close collaboration with FAOS Mountaineering Club. The race follows the same route as the Spartathlon.
The British Mimi Anderson was the first woman to run the double Spartathlon in 2015.
The Battle of Marathon
According to the story Pheidippides joined the fight against the Persians after his 490 km journey and despite the lack of help from the Spartans the Greek defeated the Persians. Pheidippides then ran 40 km (25 mi) from the battlefield near Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia with the word νικῶμεν (“We have won”), to then collapse and die, probably from exhaustion and dehydration and lack of fuel.
It was the inspiration for the classic Athens Marathon. The current Athens Marathon still roughly follows the same route from Athens to Marathon.
Image credits Alonso de Mendoza (CC BY-SA 3.0)