The Boston Marathon may be more famous, and the New York Marathon may be bigger. But you can’t get any closer to the original spirit of the race — that 26.2-mile run that takes its name from the site of the landmark battle between the Athenians and Persians in 490 BC — than the Athens Classic Marathon, this year to be held Nov. 11.
According to legend, jubilant Athenians sent a foot messenger, Pheidippides, on a roughly 25-mile journey from Marathon to Athens to announce their surprise victory over the Persian invaders. Arriving in Athens, the exhausted foot messenger allegedly cried out “We conquered!” and then collapsed on the spot and died. (First-time marathoners, take heart. As the story goes, Pheidippides was still recovering from a grueling 152-mile run from Athens to Sparta, where he had been sent to recruit the Spartans’ help against the Persians.)
Historical consensus has it that Pheidippides’ run is more fable than fact. The great Fifth Century B.C. historian Herodotus mentions Pheidippides in his chronicles of the Persian Wars, but says nothing of a victory run to Athens. Historians writing 600 years later mention the story, but give the runner’s name as Thersipus, Eucles, or Philippides.
But myth or not, the heroic ideal behind the legend inspired the organizers of the first modern Olympics in 1896 to end the games with a marathon honoring Pheidippides’ fabled run. (The length of the race was extended from 25 to 26.2 miles at the 1908 Olympics in London to ensure that the race would finish in front of the royal family’s viewing box.)
The Athens Classic Marathon traces the route of the 1896 Olympic course, starting in the town of Marathon on the eastern coast of Attica and culminating at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, originally built in the Fourth Century B.C. and restored for the 1896 Olympics. Along the way, runners pass the ancient burial mound honoring the Athenians who fell in the Battle of Marathon.
For the less Pheidippidean, 5K, 10K and power walking events provide less strenuous alternatives to the marathon. The 5K race starts at the Panathenaic Stadium and loops through the historical center of Athens, passing the parliament building, the Acropolis, the Roman-era Herod Atticus Theater, and other notable sites. The 10K race is an out-and-back route following five kilometers of the marathon course in reverse.
If you’re especially inspired by the story of Pheidippides, you might also check out the Spartathlon, held annually in September. A punishing 152-mile race through steep and wind-battered terrain, it’s an attempt to recreate the legendary foot messenger’s epic run from Athens to Sparta, as described by Herodotus. But just remember how Pheidippides’ story ends.
– Elisabeth Herschbach