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Although I’ll happily go on a 100 kilometer bicycle ride and in winter regularly skate-ski for 30 or 50 kilometers, I’m not much of a runner. So for many years I’ve teased my friends who are runners by reminding them that a marathon is a race modeled after a guy who ran until he dropped dead.
How much fun could that be?
The reason I said this was that there is a commonly held belief that it was a runner named Phidippides who ran from a place called Marathon to the city of Athens to tell the people there that the Greek army had just won a battle against the Persians. Upon delivering his news he collapsed and died.
I dare say that my friends who like running think I’m wrong in questioning their source of pleasure.
It looks also that I may have been wrong about Phidippides and his run from the battle of Marathon.
The battle of Marathon did indeed take place back about 2,500 years ago. The Greeks were badly outnumbered by a Persian fighting force that had a pretty formidable reputation. That’s where Phidippides came in.
According to Herodotus, a historian writing within a lifetime of the actual battle this Phidippides guy did his running before the fight, not after it.
Because the Athenians were so badly outnumbered they sent him to bring help from Sparta. Supposedly he covered 150 miles in two days but the Spartan troops arrived too late to fight since by then the battle was over.
The Greeks won despite their numerical disadvantage and supposedly 6,400 Persians were slaughtered while only 192 Greeks died.
According to John Ayto the story about someone running the 22 or 23 miles from the fields of Marathon to Athens—and subsequently dying—didn’t appear until 700 years after the battle, so it’s actually not likely to be true.
The first marathon race was run in 1896 during the first modern Olympic Games—it didn’t exist as an event before then. The distance was flexible at first but eventually settled on 26 miles 385 yards. This distance was based on the historical fact that it was that far from Winsor Castle to the royal viewing box during the 1908 Olympics in England.
I guess that’s as good a reason as any.
The guy who dreamt up the idea for a marathon race was a Frenchman named Michel Bréal who just happened to be a buddy of Pierre de Coubertin the guy who started the modern Olympics.
Since the first modern Olympics were held in Greece the organizers liked the idea of a marathon race to commemorate their ancient glory.
They liked it even more when a Greek fellow won the event; he was Spyridon Louis.
Though I’m unlikely to ever run a marathon the thing I do like about marathons is that the guy who dreamed them up— Michel Bréal—his day-job was as a philologist. He wrote things like a Dictionary of Latin Etymology.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.