Origin of the Marathon

Last updated on March 5th, 2024 at 01:48 pm

Origins

What is a marathon? Why do people run marathons? Where did it come from? Why is a marathon exactly 26.2 miles? How did this race become so popular all over the world? Why am I doing this to myself?

If you have ever run a marathon before, you may have been beating your brain with these questions as you gasp for breath and force one blistered and battered foot in front of the other.

This blog is here to shed some light on the popularity of the marathon and hopefully answer some of your most sort after questions.

Where Did the Marathon All Begin?

Athens


This historic foot race begins it’s origins in the mighty city of Athens (named after Athena, Goddess of War, battle strategy, and wisdom), Ancient Greece, 490BC.

At this time, leader of the Persian empire, Darius the Great, is on the warpath. Devastating everything in his way, and moving his forces across the seas towards Greece, placing all of Europe in major danger.

Persia


At this time the Persian Empire was at its peak of power. Spanning 2.1 million square miles, from the Balkans and Egypt in the west, to Central Asia and the Indus Valley in the East. Led by Darius the Great, it was the biggest Empire the world had ever witnessed. It is estimated that the Persian army had 800,000 to 1,000,000 troops and 200,000 cavalry. However, despite this enormous empire, it was plagued with troublesome revolts.

Ionian Revolt

The Persian invasion on Greece is a response to Athenian involvement within the Ionian Revolt, when Athens and Eretria sent a force to support the cities of Ionia in their attempt to overthrow Persian rule. Persia eventually came out on top after 6 years of costly war.

The Punishment Due

Because of Greece’s involvement, Darius prepared his troops for revenge by invading the entirety of the country. He sent ambassadors to all the states, the majority of which surrendered to Darius, except, Sparta and Athens.

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No Surrender

Athens had his ambassadors executed after being trialled by the state and the Spartan’s simply kicked them all into a well. Sparking the Greko-Persian wars.

Extremely disgraced by the execution of his ambassadors, Darius used an island hopping strategy through the Aegean Islands, conquering them one at a time until they hit their first primary target, Eretria. Deporting it’s population into Persia and plundering the island in just 6 days, the Persian’s were then able to sail from Eretria to the mainland.

Cry for Help

During this time, Greece was heavily fractured between it’s states. Athens had only 10,000 troops and were heavily outnumbered with the oncoming attack. The only help they could receive was a 1,000 reinforcements from Plateau. The decision had to be made for the Athenian’s to resort on calling for Spartan miliary support, as Sparta was seen as the major military force in all Greece.

Phidippides

A Running Messenger

The Athenians sent the day runner Phidippides (the greatest runner in Greece) to Sparta to ask for military support. Being a professional runner, Phidippides was in peak physical condition. In ancient Greece, being a running messenger was a common job that required specific training. A runner was used in every war up until WW1 to disseminate information. In Greek his name translates to ‘thrifty lover of horses’ or to ‘save a horse’.

Birth of the Spartathlon

Phidippides reportedly runs from Athens to Corinth, to Nemea, Nestani, Tegea and then onto Sparta. Covering 150 miles (240km) in just 2 days! To honour this incredible feat of endurance, there is an elite race held in late September called the Spartathlon. Runners must run the full 153 miles (the equivalent of 6 back to back marathons) in 36 hours to complete the challenge!

Arriving in Sparta

Upon Phidippides arrival, the Spartans were in the midst of a political crisis and a religious festival called Carneia, a sacred time when military expedition was not allowed. Phidippides was told Athens would not receive any help from the Spartans until the next full moon, which would be at least 10 days away. This was incredibly disappointing news for Phidippides as he was sure they would not be there in time to fight off the Persians.

Greek God Pan

A Runners High

On his way back, Phidippides was running across Mount Parthenion (an elevation of 1,215m), when he had a vision of the Greek God Pan.

God of the Wild

Pan is known as the ‘god of the wild’. His name comes from his association with wooded areas and pasture lands. Pan’s association with wild life caused his appearance to differ from the other gods. He had a human torso, a goat like lower half and horns, a combination now referred to as a Faun.

The Greatest Runner Ever Imagined?

Pan is known to run long distances in a short period of time without suffering fatigue. He also had a terrifying shout, that would scare away the mightiest of enemies. In fact, the word ‘panic’ is said to have derived from Pan.

Pan’s Promise

Being a God that was worshipped in the wilderness, he did not have a temple of worship. Pan said to Phidippides, he would help scare the Persian army by creating an unbearable noise. If Pan’s shout worked, the Athenians must build a magnificent temple devoted to him.

Running All the Way Back

Phidippdies returned to Athens (another 150 miles). He informed them about the delay of the Spartans and of Pan’s prophecy. Inspiring upon them the faith of victory over the Persian army.

The Battle of Marathon

The Greeks

The backbone of the Greek miliary were the infamous hoplite’s. They carried heavy bronze armour, large shields, long thick spears and swords for close range. Fighting in a phalanx formation, hoplites form a shield wall and project their spears forward. The phalanx would pose a formidable threat to anyone foolish enough to face it directly.

The Persians

The Persian army were formed from 30 different ethnicities, (Egyptian, Indian, East Iranian, Kappadokian). Wearing light leather armour, a bow, light shield and sword. The traditional Persian strategy was to wear the opposition down from a distance using bow and arrows. Then they would take out anyone who survived with spears and swords at close range.

A Strategy of Hope

Worried that they would be betrayed by their own people, the Athenians decided to fight the Persian army 25 miles away in the city of Marathon, where the Persian ships would arrive, keeping the battle away from the fortress of the city state.

The Persians landed in Marathon with 25,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. The Athenian’s met them all in, without Spartan aid, a total of 11,000 hoplites. The fate of all of Greece would be decided at Marathon.

The Waiting Game

Upon meeting the Persian army, the Athenian’s were outnumbered 1:2.4. They decided to wait on the defensive for the Persian’s to attack, this would buy them some time for the Spartans to arrive. Meanwhile, the Persian’s were also taking a defensive stance. This may be due to the fact that they did not want to face the hoplites head on.

The Battle

It was 5 days before anyone made a move. Then the Athenian’s started to realise the Persian’s cavalry were boarding back to their ships and sailing them towards Athens. The entire Athenian army is at Marathon, leaving Athens completely defenceless. This forced the Athenian’s to charge head on with the Persian forces.

A Stunning Victory

Against all odds, General Miltiades and his strategy of genius defeated the Persian army. The Athenian’s blocked all exits to Marathon, preventing the Persian’s from moving inland. The Persian centre penetrated the hoplite’s phalanx, allowing the hoplites to break the Persian wings and surround them. Once the Persian’s were surrounded, they panicked and headed back to their ships.

Victory

Running Back to Athens

The Athenians won the battle of Marathon and the Persians retreated. However, they were sailing towards Athens. The Athenian military ran the 25 miles back to Athens in all of their body armour and weaponry! Having just been in a brutal battle, many of which would have been injured. It was a lot to ask but they managed to get back to Athens before the Persians. Upon witnessing the Athenian army returning to their strongholds, the Persians decided to sail back to Persia.

Arrival of the Spartans

The Spartan army arrived in Marathon the next day, only to discover the Athenian’s had won a triumphant battle against the Persian’s. Proving to the rest of Greece that the Persian’s were not invincible. It is said that the Greek’s lost only 200 troops whereas the Persian’s had a death count of around 6,400.

Good News

Before the Athenian military made their way back from Marathon, they sent Phidippdies to inform Athens of their victory over the Persian army. It was then told that Phidippdies keeled over and died from exhaustion, however, it well known that the Greek’s love a tragic story and is this is said to be fiction. His death could just be a poetic expression of the soldiers lost in the battle of Marathon.

The World is Saved

The victory of Marathon allowed the Athenians to enter its golden age. Developing all pillars of modern day culture such as theatre and philosophy. Athens would go on to produce great philosophers, statesmen, historians and playwriters. These people shaped the very foundation of western philosophy and culture. Had the battle have been lost, world history would be different today.

The Modern Day Marathon


In 1896 A.D the first marathon was held to commemorate Phidippides and the battle of Marathon.

25.8 miles was the original distance of the race as this was the distance from Marathon to Athens. However, as Olympic venues changed the distance of the marathon changed many times to accommodate the different locations.

King Edward

In the 1908 London games, the King of Winsor, Edward the 7th, requested that the marathon start line began at his residence at Winsor Castle. The King wanted his family to witness the race from their front lawn which extended the race to 26 miles and 385 yards. The distance continued to change across time until 1924 when the International Amateur Athletics Federation fixed the distance to 26.21 miles or 42.195 kilometres.

Because of this, today the Marathon is a world famous footrace that covers a specific distance of 26 miles and 385 yards.

Become a Part of History


Now its your turn to build your dream! Run in the footsteps of Phidippides and the accomplished warriors. Achieve your own feat of endurance to become part of triumphant Greek history.

Leave a Comment

We’d love to hear about your experiences with running a marathon. How did it make you feel? Will you ever run a marathon again? Did you hit a new PR? Time? Please leave a comment below.

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