In the spirit of the Olympics, here’s a history of the most famous of the track and field events: The Marathon.
To begin with, the Marathon is a race that has the participants stumble and groan over 26.2 miles of track, or 42.195 kilometers. No race in any sport has a similarly inauspicious origin story as the marathon does. In the 500s BCE, Persia was one of the world’s greatest empires, the wealthiest, the strongest, and potentially the most expansionist at the time. The Persian king Darius, father of the later Xerxes of Thermopylae fame, had quashed all internal rebellion and dissent to his rule and began to expedition outwardly towards other parts of the Levant and Aegean sea. As the 490s BCE came to a close, the Persian war machine ground closer and closer to Athens, wiping out Thrace and a few other Grecian strongholds along the way.
The Athenian assembly feared the Persians and sent a runner to Sparta in hopes of gathering allies to fight the Persian invasion. As the Persian navy was making headway towards a landing point in the Greek city of Marathon, the Athenians were struggling to find support. The runner they sent to Sparta was supposedly a man named Pheidippides, and he ran the 150 miles between Athens and Sparta to request aid. The Spartans were busy with a religious festival, so the Greek army (Pheidippides ran back to Athens, then marched to Marathon, so this dude had to be exhausted by now) assembled along the coasts of Marathon to meet the Persian army. Darius had been collecting his annihilation army for some time; he outnumbered the Greeks nearly two to one.
The city of Marathon on a map, it’s oddly enough about 26.2 miles away from Athens
The Greek armies scored a truly unexpected victory over the Persians, and routed Darius’ armies completely. As the Persians retreated to their ships and shuffled off the shores, the Greek commanders realized the dire straits they were in: The city of Athens did not expect them to have beaten the Persians. None of the Athenian government knew that they had won the war. If the Persian fleet they watched winking below the horizon arrived at Athens before the Athenian army came back, they would think that the Persians had destroyed all of their military. It would be likely that the Athenian Assembly would capitulate to the Persians and all the fighting at Marathon would be essentially wasted.
The Battle of Marathon battle map looks like the Battle of Cannae, but flipped around. Flanking and baiting have been the most effective tactics for most of history.
According to the sources, the Greek generals sent out Pheidippides to run to Athens and tell them to hold out for as long as possible, because the victorious Athenian army was marching home as fast as possible. Pheidippides, who had just run 300 miles from Athens to Sparta to Athens, and then marched 26 miles to Marathon, then fought a battle against one of the world’s greatest fighting forces, hit the road running and didn’t stop until he got back to Athens. According to the Roman chronicler Lucian, Pheidippides arrived in Athens, shouts out “Joy to you, we have won” and then expired right there in the middle of the Assembly. Athens geared up for war, and when the Persian fleet comes sailing around the banks, they saw that the entire city was bristling with determined partisans. Darius tested the Athenian defenses a few times to no avail, and the Athenian army came marching up to further reinforce the city. The First Persian war ended with the Persians losing some 6,400 men at Marathon to the 192 that Greece lost. Pheidippides’ extreme and fatal run became a sports staple.
Just so people are clear, it wasn’t a nice flat run either. Greece has some gnarly hills that Pheidippides had to gasp and gurgle his way up on his way back to the Assembly.