Nenikikamen! Who would have thought one Greek word, uttered from the mouth of a dying man, as he lay sprawled on the ground in front of his countrymen, would have spurred the imaginations of men, living centuries after? Nobody would have ever imagined that the story of the first ‘Marathon’ runner would become instrumental in the launch of a sport that would become immensely popular, even in places away from the ancient lands of Athens and Sparta.”The Story of Marathon” is a tale of immense will-power, fuelled by a level of endurance that history has only occasionally been a witness to.
The history of Marathons far predates its inclusion in the Modern Olympic Games and its subsequent acceptance as a widely held, favourite endurance sport. To get a better picture of the origin of Marathons, we will need to go back in time. To the lands in antiquity, where it was quite commonplace to hear tragic paeans sung of brave heroes who defended their motherland from the devastation of wars waged by marauding conquerors.
Students of history will recall that Athens and Sparta were the two major Polis or city-states of Greece, with the former being hailed as the “cradle of democracy”, while the latter being widely acclaimed of its military prowess. It is here, in the space between these two cities that the tale of the first Marathon began.
Fifth Century BC was a tumultuous time of the Greeks. Mighty conquerors, the Persians from the east besieged them. It is from the accounts of the Greek historian Herodotus that we come to know of the terrible Greco-Persian Wars- a series of conflicts between the invading Persians and the defending Greek city-states.
The Persian Empire was brutally expansionist. They were continually marching forward, plundering lands and slaughtering all those who stood in its path. The result was the subjugation of most regions in Central/West Asia and a few in Europe. Then, they looked further westwards, with their sights set firmly upon the prosperous city-states of Greece!
Athens was nowhere close to the might of the Persian Army. The Athenians were not only ill-equipped but also far outnumbered. To give a befitting reply to the Persians, they desperately needed the help of Sparta-the only city-state that enforced strict martial law and made military training mandatory for boys from the age of 7. Sparta’s warriors were their only hope. However, Sparta was far away from them, almost 150 miles. It was not possible to deliver the message by using a horse, as the route to Sparta was rough. Remember this was a time long before the fast modes of communication, such as telephones and the Internet! One can imagine their plight as the only means of communication at that point of time was a human foot messenger.
The Athenians then sought the fastest runner from amongst them. History has given him their names: Thersipus of Erchius, Eucles and Pheidippides. However, the name most historians recall it to be is Pheidippides. The story goes that Athenians decided that Pheidippides, a brave young athlete, would perform the task of beseeching the Spartans for help. This was a real test of endurance, for he would have to run through a vast and arduous terrain to reach Sparta. He ran like the wind, never even stopping for a moment for neither food nor drink nor sleep fearing that even a minute lost would spell doom for his country. Thirty-six hours later, the Spartans saw a young man appear amidst them, uttering a heart-rendering plea: “Men of Sparta, the Athenians beseech you to hasten to their side, and not allow that state, which is the most ancient in all of Greece, to be enslaved by the barbarians.”
The Spartans agreed to help but religious laws forbade them from entering the battleground before the auspicious time of the full moon which was about 4-5 days away. Pheidippides, disappointed by the delay in the Spartan’s help, had to run back to Athens to break this news. The Athenians, upon receiving the news, with no other options remaining, faced the invading Persians. It was more like a suicide, as they were hopelessly ill-matched to fight against one of the best armies of the world! The Persian army was over 25,000 men plus cavalry and 600 ships in contrast to Athenians with less than 10,000 men and no cavalry. They chose a nearby stretch of land as a battleground, and the Athenians, along with Pheidippides, marched forth to the plains of Marathons, to wage the battle.
The battle was brutal, with the Persians showing no sign of mercy. However, their advance was being kept in check by the Athenians who fought courageously, spurred on by the many battle cries that filled the air. How could Persians withstand such an indomitable spirit of Athenians? Soon, the death count started piling up against them, and towards the end of the day, it was with a rude shock when they realised that the dead Persians outnumbered that of the Athenians.
Persians could martyr only 192 Athenians, compared to 6400 Persians killed in the battle. Historians consider the Battle of Marathon to be the pivotal moment in Western civilisation and democratic ideal as it saved democratically run Athens from the Persian tyrant King Darius.
The Persians beat a hasty retreat, realising that Athenians had thwarted them in their attempt to seize control of Athens. To convey the news of the stupendous victory to the Athenians, they could think of none who could run faster with such glad tidings than their fastest runner Pheidippides? The young man, though weary from battle, readily accepted this task, and once again ran, this time to deliver the joyous news to the citizens of Athens. Three hours later, surpassing all levels of human endurance, Pheidippides reached Athens proclaiming, “Nenikikamen!”, meaning “Rejoice! We are victorious.” It is said that he collapsed and died as soon as the words left his mouth.
As centuries rolled by, the story of Pheidippides and the Battle of Marathon became famous and started to spread slowly across the world. The vision of a young man heralding victory, moments before succumbing to his death, strongly impacted some influential personalities of yore. Robert Browning’s short, yet powerfully emotive poem, “Pheidippides”, was one of the famous works that threw light on the ancient Greek tale. It was so inspirational that it prompted Michel Breal, a French Professor, into penning a letter to Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Modern Olympic Games to include Marathon as an event in the Olympic Games. With this recommendation, the high-endurance run, called Marathon, received inclusion as a competitive event in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Breal also offered to sponsor the prize for the winner. Such was the admiration he had for Pheidippides!
The idea captured the fancy of the organisers, as a majority of them were Greeks themselves, they saw this as a great way to popularise the Grecian legend of the Marathon, as it was the perfect complement to the overall spirit of the games. They held a selection race for the Olympic Marathon on 22nd March 1896, making it the first marathon held in the world! Charilaos Vasilakos won it in 3 hours and 18 minutes. Two weeks later, the very first official Olympic Marathon was held in Athens, and Spyridon Louis, a humble Greek water-carrier made history when he dashed through the finishing line in 2 hours 58 minutes and 50 seconds. Nothing, like the marathon was ever seen in the ancient Olympics, conducted between 76BC to 261AD. The longest race then was less than 5km. Long distance athletes therefore consider this to be one of the most momentous periods in sporting history.
For several years initially, there was no standard distance fixed for the Marathon races. Organisers set most races at an approximate distance of 40 kilometres (close to 25 miles), a figure decided upon to commemorate the legend of Pheidippides, as this was roughly the measure of the distance between Athens and the plains of Marathon. However, the organisers could rectify this lack of clarity in the distance during the 1908 London Olympic Games.
While there is no actual proof, the story goes that the British Royal Family, unwittingly, had a small part to play in the race’s regularisation, and for the addition of 385 yards. The organisers wanted to accommodate Queen Alexandra’s request of starting the race on the lawns of Windsor Castle to give the younger Royals the chance to watch it from their nursery window. They scheduled the race to finish, with a final lap, ending in front of the royal box at the Olympic Stadium. The entire length from start to finish was 26.2 miles (26 miles and 385 yards). This measurement has remained uncontested, and from 1921 to date, the official distance of the full marathon remains fixed at 26 miles and 385 yards, or 42.195 kilometres.
Marathons began with a lone man, running a life-and-death race across inhospitable terrain. Running marathons is a spiritual journey to many today; It helps me zone out and Zen in making it an extended form of meditation. That’s why running running feels like a religion to runners today. What started with a single man, attracts thousands of Marathon race enthusiasts today, each exuding the same spirit shown by Pheidippides, and the same feeling of euphoria as he did when he proclaimed-Nenikikamen!...