Thoughts That Hurt to Think #108 -The First Marathon Was Fatal!

Not all that long ago, the main way young people learned stuff was in school. Some kids had encyclopedias, and they were kind of the search engine of my childhood; but mostly I just believed what they taught us in school, in those rare moments when I was paying attention. To be honest, I couldn’t even remember what era this story came from. I thought it was pretty old, but I didn’t realize it went all the way back to the Greeks. Laugh at me if you will, but I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised to discover this was a Civil War story.

As you may have guessed, my family didn’t have encyclopedias.

Also, I was never a big history buff as a kid. Science fiction and fantasy was way more interesting to me than boring old stories that I already knew were probably altered or made up. I couldn’t get through a chapter in my history book without nodding off, but I could stay up all night reading a horror novel. Now, though…I have the internet, coupled with a growing curiosity about all the stuff that happened to get humanity where we are today.

This was going to be a post about the first guy who ran a marathon to deliver a message, and how he died after gasping out his memorable final words. Apparently, though…history really did get this one wrong. Like, really wrong. Some people even say the whole event was made up, as it was told to us back when I was a kid; but even if it was, the real story might actually be more interesting.

We all know lots of people run marathons, and nobody is dropping dead after crossing the finish line. Hell, people do it for fun; and folks of all ages are putting one foot in front of the other for over twenty-five miles nowadays just to prove they can. Others are taking it to a new extreme, racing anywhere from fifty miles to over two hundred miles; all to cross just one finish line. Really, though…this isn’t such a new extreme. Let’s talk about the first marathon, and why what these folks are doing is not anything nearly as extreme as what that guy might have done.

Maybe I shouldn’t talk about the length of a marathon in such vague terms. After running twenty-five miles, anyone running another one and a fifth mile probably wants all that counted as well. These races are set at 26.2 miles to mark how far it was from Marathon to Athens, which is the distance the runner in this tale is said to have run. The hero of the story let them know his news, and promptly expired. Back in school, they told us he ran the whole way in full battle armor; but all that does is bring up more questions. We’ll consider those later.

One of two men may have made this trek, to deliver his message; it isn’t clear which one it was, or if the story really actually happened at all. If it did, the best way to imagine it is the most extreme version that exists. We’ll leave out the possibility that part of this journey was made by an entirely different guy, and give all the credit to the one best known for the run. Apparently there is even some question as to what his name was, but it was reportedly either Pheidippides, Philippides or Phidippides. We’ll go with the most common version here, and call him Pheidippides.

It’s no wonder I couldn’t remember his name; history may have even forgotten it.

 Pheidippides might well have run one hundred fifty miles to beg for help from an ally army, on the first leg of his historical and possibly misremembered journey. Back then, this was not the big deal you might think it was. Messengers were often sent out over such distances, and they covered them in pretty amazing time. Pheidippides was one such messenger, and it only made sense that they would send the best of the best when it came time for Athens to ask the Spartans for help in their war against the Persians. So, he went to them. On foot.

The Spartans agreed to help, but their religion forbade them from leaving until the moon was full; alas, that would be several days hence. Upon hearing the mixed news, our hero ran back to the front line to let the fighting troops know that help was coming; also, that it would probably arrive far too late. His first run took about thirty-six hours, and it must have taken at least that long to run back; but Pheidippides was just getting started.

Supposedly this all happened in the height of summer, when temperatures were hottest and nobody felt like going for a run. In addition to that, the journey took him over some pretty hardcore mountain terrain. Twice. But, hey…this guy was accustomed to such hardship, since this was what he did for a living. The tale doesn’t really start getting interesting until this point, after Pheidippides had possibly run almost three hundred miles to seek help and return to deliver a bit of bad news.

In the most epic version of the story, the messenger put on armor and took up a weapon to fight the final telling battle. After that, he ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver his historic message. Like his name, the words he uttered are up for debate. It wasn’t in English, no matter what he said; of course the gist of it was that the battle was over, and the Athenians had won. Then he died, at the feet of the people he had delivered the message to.

I like this version the most, because just fighting for a while after running so long should have been enough to kill the guy. If he was a messenger by profession, he might not have been a great warrior; but doing his part was still pretty admirable, from the perspective of someone who thinks a marathon is just too far to run all at once. He did the first marathon after running three hundred miles and fighting in a battle, and maybe he was skilled enough to fight but not clever enough to remove his armor on the run. You would think he would have taken a minute, though; shedding all that weight would have helped him go faster, and carrying it would definitely explain why he dropped dead after all this.

Whether he died in armor or in running shorts doesn’t really matter, in the big scheme of things. The stuff Pheidippides did before expiring were pretty heroic, if all of it is true. Of course, it may be mostly made up, and his name might be something different entirely; but that’s history for you. We can never be sure something happened unless we saw it happen; and even then, our memories are notoriously unreliable.

The good news is, we can stop wondering if all these extreme athletes of today are somehow overdoing it. Until there’s an event where you run three hundred miles, fight in a victorious battle against overwhelming odds and then run a marathon in full armor, they won’t be able to say they did what Pheidippides did.

Or might have done.

If that was even his real name.

Thanks for reading!

All the best,


J.K. Norry
The Secret Society of Deeper Meaning
Twitter: @JayNorry

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