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The Run Heard 'Round the World

Following in the Footsteps of the Heroic Greek Messenger Who Inspired the Modern Marathon. Whoever He Was.

August 01, 2004|Mark Edward Harris | Mark Edward Harris' photographs were last featured in the magazine in a Travel Issue story on the Three Gorges Dam in China.

I am no stranger to marathons, having walked six of them in Los Angeles to photograph what's happening in the city along the grueling 26.2 miles. And like anyone who has experienced these races, I am fascinated by the legendary battlefield run from which the race sprang, and which will be reprised this month at the Athens Olympic Games.

As the story goes, a runner was sent from the blood-soaked battlefield at Marathon to the city of Athens, about 25 miles away. After delivering the news of a Greek victory over the Persians with a shout of "Nenikikamen" (Rejoice! We have conquered!) he drops dead.

If you thought that runner was Pheidippides, you are not alone. But just who the messenger truly was may never be known. Probably because messengers were so commonplace, the seminal historian Heredotus doesn't even mention one in his account of the 490 BC battle, in which the Athenians, signficantly outnumbered, used a tricky sagging offense to outwit the Persians. In 340 BC, a runner named Thersippos gets the credit, but soon after historians transfer their affections to another runner, Eucleus.

It isn't until the 2nd century AD that Pheidippides' name is linked to the achievement, probably because of the monster run--150 miles in less than 48 hours--he made just before the battle. The Athenians, spooked at the size of the Persian forces assembling on the plain of Marathon, dispatched him to Sparta to ask for help, which the Spartans said they couldn't deliver for another week. Something about the full moon. Or so the legend goes.

Two months before the 2004 Games are to begin, I am standing near the old Marathon Bridge, the starting line for the first Olympics marathon in 1896. A monolithic concrete structure has been erected next to the bridge as the starting point for these Games. I am about to walk in the footsteps of that 490 BC runner, and slip my vaseline-covered toes into Nike (after the ancient Greek goddess of victory) Dri-FIT Mesh socks and a pair of new New Balance running shoes. I think of how the runner would have had to carry his shield and sword so that countrymen along the way would know the nature of his mission. For my part, I have two heavy Nikon cameras. When the Olympic marathoners line up for their run, they'll have a painted blue line to keep them on track to the stadium. I have a map I marked up with a red Sharpie.

It would have been standard procedure the morning of the battle for both sides to emerge from their trenches at about 5 a.m. and exchange profanities for an hour or so. A trumpet would sound about 6:30 to summon the warriors to breakfast. On the Greek side this would consist of dried figs, barley bread, half an onion, and if they were lucky, a piece of cheese. For my part, I fortified myself the night before at a McDonald's in Athens. I will see four other McDonald's along the route.

Though outnumbered by the Persian forces 5 to 1, the Greek general Miltiades went with the unorthodox plan of building up his forces along the phalanxes while allowing a weakened center to give way to the enemy. Unprepared for this pincer attack, the Persian archers failed to get off more than one quick volley of arrows before the Athenians were upon them, and their ranks quickly fell into disarray. According to Herodotus, the Persians lost 6,400 men and the Athenians 192.

About two miles down the road is the turn-off for the Tomb of the Marathon Warriors, which holds the remains of the 192 Greek soldiers. A detour around the burial mound will help stretch the race to the now official marathon distance of 26.2 miles.

There are many signs of modern life's battles: man against machine, as seen in a roadside shrine to a car accident victim, his leather key chain hanging on the shrine. Anti-American graffiti recalls the turbulent sentiments toward American bases on Greek territory in the '80s.

There are numerous road construction areas where traffic is being diverted, but few workers are in sight. It is Sunday, but with the Olympics two months away, there's a lot to be done. As archeologist George Rostandis drove me to Marathon, he met my skepticism with: "They say they will be on time. The government gives towns along the marathon route money for improvement, for a town square here, a couple of benches there. They will add flowers and plants."

I'm more than 12 miles into the course and have not come across any of the small Greek villages of travel poster fame. The temperature is well into the 80s; I can just imagine how hot it will be in August. I'm drenched with sweat. I'm also really thirsty, and every store I have passed has been closed.

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