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The History of the Marathon Run

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

Marathon Town

Marathon Town

The First Marathon Run

The first marathon was not a sports event. It commemorates an Athenian messenger running 149 miles to announce the arrival of enemies, the Persians, in Marathon town, and to ask the Spartans for help, and then he ran back to Marathon. After a few days, he ran again 26 miles in a wounded state to Athens to deliver the news of the victory of the Athenians over the Persians. Soon after delivering the crucial news to Athens, Pheidippides died of exhaustion. The battlefield being Marathon town, this deadly run of Pheidippides gained that name.

The Battle of Marathon

Herodotus, the 5th century BCE Greek historian and geographer, is the oldest authentic source available on the battle of Marathon as he collected the details of the war directly from the war veterans. Historians such as Cornelius Nepos and Solinus who lived a few centuries later also narrated the story of the battle in more detail. Herodotus calls Pheidippides the ‘day-runner’ (hemerodromoi) and writes that he carried the message for help to Sparta and then came back to Marathon to report back to the Athenians already stationed there. Hemerodromoi were trained long-distance runners who carried messages to far away places. According to the account of Herodotus, the message that Pheidippides carried back was that the Spartans could start marching to Marathon only after the full moon as they were amidst a festival celebration. Pheidippides went to war with his fellow Athenian soldiers. Though Athenians won, he was wounded. Unaware of his physical condition, the Athenians send him to Athens which was around 26 miles away to deliver the good news of victory. The dedicated soldier that he was, Pheidippides, ran again and delivered the news to Athens, shouted “Nenikhkamen!!” (We have won), and then died.

The Athens Stadium Where the First Olympics Was Conducted and Where the First Marathon Race Ended

Inclusion of Marathon Run in Olympics

Olympia in Greece had been the venue of the annual games event since 776 BCE. However, this mega sports event held in honour of Zeus, the king of Gods, was discontinued in 393 CE. When the modern annual Olympics Games started in 1896 in the city of Athens, the Marathon run was included as a long-distance running competition commemorating Pheidippides and his victory lap. The distance was fixed at 24.85 miles which is the distance from Marathon bridge to the Olympic stadium in Athens and also approximately the distance covered by Pheidippides on his last lap. As the Olympics has been held at different locations in different countries, the Marathon run distances varied from one event to the other in slight ways. However, in the 1908 London Olympics, 385 yards were added to the initial 26 miles because the organisers wanted the winner to finish in front of the viewing box of the royal family. Only in 1921 did the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) arrive at a final decision that the 1908 Olympics Marathon distance be fixed as the standard distance for Marathon runs.

The Silver Cup Presented to the Winner of the Marathon event in the First Olympics

The First Olympics Marathon

In the 1896 Olympics, there was only an unpaved road that connected Marathon to Athens. When the first Marathon race commenced, Spiridon Louis represented Greece. Each runner was provided with the help of an assistant along the run. One eyewitness report says that Spiridon Louis stopped to drink a glass of wine at a roadside Inn in Pikermi and asked the spectators who else had taken the lead in front of him. The race-pace of Louis was later estimated as 4 minutes and 28 seconds to cover one kilometre. Near the village of Ambelokipi, Louis is also reported to have taken some orange slices from his girlfriend. Just before Louis entered the stadium, a messenger arrived on a horse to inform the Greek royal family that their countryman, Louis, was in the lead of the race. The news spread among the spectators and they awaited the entry of Louis at the gate of the stadium, in excitement. Once he entered the stadium, the Greek Crown Prince Konstantinos and Prince Georgios joined him in the run to cheer and laud him. It took Louis, 2 hours, 58 minutes, and 50 seconds to complete the run.

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Artist’s sketch of Spiridon Louis completing the First Marathon and Becoming the Winner Accompanied by the Greek Crown Prince Who Salutes Him with a Waving Hat

Louis, the Labourer

After the race, once Louis was led to the rest area, he asked for a cup of coffee and then had one more. The royal family came over to congratulate him and when Queen Olga shook hands with him, she was surprised at how callused his hands were. Realising that he was a labourer, she also gave him the rings that she was wearing on her fingers. She reportedly said to him, “The honour you have given to Greece is worth far more than these simple rings”. Louis was a water transporter who collected fresh water in barrels from the springs of Amaroussion and distributed them in Athens. The daily walk that he had to make alongside the horses that carried the barrels was the secret of his stamina and strength. He did not compete again and fate had it that he was arrested and jailed for forgery in 1925. However, he was found not guilty and acquitted after spending one year in jail.

Spiridon Louis After Winning the Race

Marathons of Today

Boston Marathon was the first annual marathon in history and was launched in 1897 inspired by the Olympic marathon. The New York City Marathon which started as an annual event in 1976 was the first annual urban marathon in the world. Currently, 500 Marathon runs are conducted in 64 countries every year. Of the 24 men’s marathons held as part of the Olympic Games between 1896 and 1996, only 73.5% of the competitors finished the race. One man died while running. After a while, women also started participating in marathons. Clarence DeMar, John A. Kelley, Ed Whitlock, Fauna Singh and Helen Klein are a few legendary marathon runners who amazed the world with their finishing times.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

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