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The 2,500-Year-Old Man

Nov. 15, 2010
Nov. 15, 2010

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Nov. 15, 2010

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The 2,500-Year-Old Man

Pheidippides probably didn't make his heroic run after the Battle of Marathon, but that didn't stop thousands of people from celebrating its anniversary—and the classic test of endurance it inspired—by racing from Marathon to Athens

This is an article from the Nov. 15, 2010 issue

To Akropolis! Run, Pheidippides, one race more!

—ROBERT BROWNING, Pheidippides, 1879

The costume ... well, that was her idea. When Amby Burfoot said he would run the Athens Classic Marathon in commemoration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, Cristina Negrón, professional editor and amateur seamstress, decided with the same enthusiasm Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland reserved for putting on shows in the old barn that if her husband planned to travel in the footsteps of Pheidippides, he should look like Pheidippides. She scanned history books for representations of the messenger who, according to legend, ran from Marathon to Athens, proclaimed victory and dropped dead on the spot. She consulted Google Images. She used her imagination. Three yards of metallic gold fabric, another three of knit gold, and two weeks later: Pheidippides. "The most important thing to know is Amby really wanted abs," Negrón says. "He'd never had them before. I ended up quilting them. Puffy, quilted abs so he could be a manly man." She sewed herself a matching outfit and went as Pheidippides's lesser-known girlfriend.

Now, dressing as Pheidippides to run a marathon in Athens is like being an Elvis imitator in Las Vegas. You are not alone.

By a thoroughly unscientific count, 30 Pheidippideses were among the 12,500 runners at the start for the marathon, which was held on Oct. 31. (Halloween was mere coincidence.) Included were a dozen helmeted and red-caped Germans and Spaniards who looked more like ancient Spartans than Athenians but got the benefit of the doubt because the tie goes to the runner. There were also three goddess Athenas, a barefoot man in an Animal House toga and a determined fellow from San Francisco who ran the 26 miles and 385 yards in 60°-plus heat while wearing 35 pounds of armor and toting a shield and spear. (He collapsed from exhaustion at the finish some seven hours after his start. You couldn't have seen that coming.)

Among the multiple Pheidippideses in the Athens Classic Marathon, Burfoot was surely the only one to have won Boston. He did it in 1968. That is a big deal. But of the 75 or so marathons he has entered, Athens became the most significant the moment Cristina and Burfoot's son, Daniel, 33, announced in August, on his 64th birthday, that they would accompany him to marathoning's ground zero. Burfoot's first go at Athens would be a family pilgrimage, a misty journey that would tug at his emotions as insistently as the pain that has nagged his left calf since he had meniscus surgery in June.

Two generations of American long-distance stars also heeded the siren call of Athens. Jeff Galloway, once Burfoot's roommate at Wesleyan, an authority on marathon training and the owner of two running stores named for Pheidippides, went for the 16th time. (He plugged his first store, opened in Tallahassee in 1973, as THE NAME IN RUNNING FOR OVER 2,400 YEARS. Later he amended the slogan to SINCE 490 B.C.) Kathrine Switzer, 63, the first woman to enter and run at Boston, in 1967, had not run a road marathon since 1976, but she returned to Marathon to race for the first time since sobbing on a nearby beach after the Greek athletics federation refused to sanction her entry into its marathon 38 years ago. Joan Benoit Samuelson, winner of the first women's Olympic marathon, competed in Athens just three weeks after running 2:47:50 in Chicago at age 53.

"The power of the story is indelible," Galloway says. "Once I ran by an architectural site at a village near Marathon. It was dated 560 B.C. I was thinking people of that village might have been out there encouraging Pheidippides. That drove home the reality."

Of 2,200 marathons worldwide there certainly are bigger ones than Athens, with more prize money. There are marathons with more dramatic topography—"A big uphill for 20 miles, and then it's yahoo, down into town," 1972 Olympic champion Frank Shorter says of the Greek course—and more scenic vistas. A modern Pheidippides runs past car dealerships, minimarts, a lumberyard, a Vietnamese restaurant, gas stations and bathroom-fixture stores, although in Pikermi, a town halfway from Marathon to Athens, he glimpses the back of a statue of a runner plunked on the Marathon Avenue median. (The statue wears no bib—or anything else, for that matter. He is, in effect, mooning competitors.) But in the year of the Big Two-Five-Oh-Oh, Athens is king. For those fanatics who have timing chips inserted in their running shoes and regularly tackle a distance that has become the Mount Everest of the common man (more than 45,000 took part in Sunday's New York race) this is the marathon imprinted in the genetic code.

In Athens there is an aspect of memory, but memory plays tricks. Like history.

Galloway's cheering villagers in 490 B.C. are illusory, apparitions of the idealized past. A messenger named Pheidippides never made the run that made him the most famous runner in history. Like Burfoot's ersatz abs, this legend has been stitched onto a battle that needs no embellishment.

Unfortunately for the legends of long-distance runners, someone in one of the many villages along the route undoubtedly jumped on a horse and swiftly outdistanced those on foot.

—FRANK J. FROST, from "The Dubious Origins of the Marathon," American Journal of Ancient History, 1979

If there were a historical BCS—Battle Championship Series—Marathon would be playing on or around New Year's Day. From a Persian perspective it was simply a skirmish in an extended campaign on its western border, says Caroline Falkner, a professor of Greek history at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., but the Eurocentric world long has kneeled at Marathon's sandaled feet. More than 150 years ago Sir Edward Creasy listed it first in his book The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, but the University of London historian was going chronologically. John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century British philosopher, also was a booster, writing, "The Battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods." Modern military historians view its significance similarly. Michael Lee Lanning, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, places Marathon 28th in his book The Battle 100. (Perhaps he thought the Athenians played a soft nonconference schedule.) But William Weir, author of 50 Battles That Changed the World, ranks it first because it preserved Athens's embryonic democracy, which in 490 B.C. was not yet two decades old.

The battle stats: A force of 10,000 but possibly as many as 18,000 Athenians, aided by 1,000 soldiers from the city of Plataea, repelled a Persian army with perhaps twice as many soldiers as the Greeks, although some of the wilder estimates of the invading force run as high as six figures. Some 6,400 Persians died, compared to only 192 Greeks, a ratio of 33 to 1. The bodies of the slain Athenian soldiers were cremated, and the ashes and charred bones were buried in the Soros, a mound on Marathon's plain that stands almost 30 feet high and is about three miles from the starting point of the race. The course leaves Marathon Avenue to loop the perimeter of the Soros, obliging runners to bob, if not nod, their heads to history.

Even if Pheidippides's run to Athens occurred precisely as in the legend—and you have to admit, death was a terrific move for his legacy—Peter Krentz, a Davidson College history professor and author of the book The Battle of Marathon, ranks it only third among the remarkable running tales associated with the military engagement. The battle has runners' footprints all over it. Krentz says that Athens's hoplites, heavily armed foot soldiers, prevailed that August or September day because they surprised the Persian forces after jogging eight Greek stadia (nine tenths of a mile). The hoplites' vigorous pace allowed them to hustle under the arc of Persian arrows and engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat before its cavalry could arrive. (Upon hearing this story Burfoot remarked, "So the marathon is actually about the mile? I really, really suck at the mile.")

The marathon actually is about the ultramarathon. There is another messenger, named, according to most accounts, Philippides—Krentz says there's a chance the two couriers are one in the same—whose name is attached to the Battle of Marathon. But he was not sent to Athens. A few days before the battle, Philippides was dispatched to Sparta, 150 miles to the southwest, to ask the rival city-state to send soldiers to help their fellow Greeks. Without benefit of an iPod, water stations or cheering crowds, Philippides covered the rocky route to Sparta in 36 hours. But because of a religious festival, Spartan soldiers would not be free to leave until the full moon. (Sparta eventually did send 2,000 men, but the fight was over by the time they arrived.) Generals inclined to dispatch a runner to Athens after the battle (ignoring Professor Frost's horse option, of course) would likely choose someone not fresh off a 150-mile run.

Pheidippides, or Philippides, becomes a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma tucked into phyllo dough. Herodotus, who wrote The Histories about five decades after the battle and likely interviewed some of the Athenian soldiers—he could have talked to Aeschylus, the playwright—never mentions a messenger hotfooting it to Athens. There is no contemporary source on Pheidippides. There is no defined route for his run. (A messenger could have attempted a punishing but direct 22-mile passage through the mountains or a gentler but circuitous 25-mile course—the length of the race when the marathon was introduced at the first modern Olympics, in Athens in 1896. The current marathon distance of 26 miles and 385 yards, or 42.2 kilometers, was first used at the 1908 Olympics in London, after Queen Alexandra requested that the race start at the east lawn of Windsor Castle and finish in front of the royal box in White City Stadium. The royal distance was standardized in 1921.) The logical conclusion is that there was no Pheidippides death run, which has not prevented his from being one of the stories from antiquity that burrows deepest into memory.

You can trace Pheidippides's run across the centuries, a mythic game of telephone to which writers and painters and poets and politicians have added grace notes. Roger Robinson, a historian of running and Switzer's husband, summarizes the legend as an amalgam of Greek history, Roman sensationalism (the messenger turns up in the late--second century A.D. works of Lucian), 19th-century romanticism (Browning's breathless poem), nascent Greek nationalism (pride in the Pheidippides myth led to its inclusion on the first Olympic program) and 21st-century running hype.

"All human cultures," Robinson says, "need a myth of origin."

Running's is the story of Pheidippides.

In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.

—HARUKI MURAKAMI, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

In 1969 the founding publisher of New York magazine ran his first Boston. The next night, at a dinner party in Manhattan, his accomplishment came up. George Hirsch might as well have skated across Antarctica. He was peppered with questions, the hub of conversation for an hour. One of the other guests was David Susskind, host of a high-minded late-night television talk show. He asked Hirsch to rustle up some fellow marathoners, and a few nights later the panel was on the air discussing their exotic pursuit.

"When I was 43 [in 1978] I mentioned to someone I had run the New York Marathon," says Hirsch, who also helped found The Runner magazine and was worldwide publisher of Runner's World until 2003. "They asked, 'Did you win?' No one says that anymore. They all know the deal."

Now time is hardly critical. 3:05? 5:03? Yawn. The core of the modern marathoner is not the time of his run but the timing of his decision to run.

The marathon, Burfoot says, has evolved from a long-distance race into a giant cauldron into which people are free to pour metaphors. Marathon running once defined a person. Now people define the marathon. "Death of a loved one, breakup of a marriage, loss of a job ... not to get too morbid here, but some people take to marathons in testament to the fact there is still substance and life in them," Burfoot says. "For others, it's simply a celebration of their life or perhaps the lives of others."

Twenty-six miles provides a broad canvas on which to paint a personal message. Twelve thousand five hundred marathoners in Athens; 12,500 stories. They came motivated by history or heritage, by health or healing, by the thrill or challenge of it or by the fund-raising possibilities that make marathons the angels of charities worldwide. With two sets of twins under the age of eight (health), a wife of Greek descent (heritage) and a recent round-number birthday, Col. John Skinner of the Baltimore Police Department leaped at applying for a spot in the field being sponsored by the Baltimore-Piraeus (Greece) Sister City committee. "You kind of find yourself, unlock another side of your personality," says Skinner, who oversees 1,800 uniformed officers. "In the year I turned 40, with its life-changing symbolism, it was almost a spiritual experience." He trained by running 35 miles a week. He rented Chariots of Fire. He finished in 5:20.

Matt Glendinning had been preparing for the race for 12 years. He was at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, teaching ancient history, when he first announced to students that he would run Athens in 2010. Glendinning, who earned a Ph.D. in classical archaeology at North Carolina, annually would tell classes at Germantown Friends, and later at Moorestown (N.J.) Friends School, of his plans. In 2009, when he interviewed for the job of head of school at Moses Brown in Providence, he told the board of trustees he would miss a week in October 2010 because of a prior commitment. The school hired him anyway. "This was a seminal moment in history I want to be part of," says Glendinning, a seven-time marathoner who headed a Moses Brown running group that included a teacher, alumni, parents and board members in an effort to raise $50,000 for a scholarship endowment. "This is the most visceral thing I've ever done." He finished in 4:18.

In the months preceding her 49th birthday, Cate Shay compiled a list of 50 things she wanted to do in her 50th year: Visit her father's grave. Eat a fig. See a clairvoyant. And she would start it all six days after Happy Birthday to Me, by running her first and, she maintains, only marathon. Athens, of course. Shay is a lithe, engaging woman of medium height who once would have been described as having a runner's build, but now people who enter marathons come in all shapes and sizes. She runs mostly 10K races, mostly in Australia. Cate and her husband, Phil, also a runner, live about an hour's drive southwest of Melbourne. She is a devoted follower of Jeff Galloway's training programs. When her two children gave her a Galloway DVD for Christmas and an Athens Classic Marathon brochure fell from the package, that settled it. Birthday on Oct. 25. Recent 25th wedding anniversary. The 2,500 years. And Philippides—like Phil, her husband. She didn't need a clairvoyant to see her future.

This is what has changed. A middle-aged computer teacher at a neighborhood rec center who never had run a marathon—and finished Athens in 4:34—is the template of the modern marathon runner.

Why couldn't Pheidippides have died here?

—FRANK SHORTER, 22 miles into his first marathon, in 1971

George Hirsch is 76 now. He ran New York for the final time last year and didn't "win" then, either. (He finished in 4:06.) He had fielded that naive question about winning 32 years ago, in the middle of the so-called golden age of running. Two years earlier 25,000 runners had completed marathons in the U.S. By 1980 the number would increase to 143,000. In 2009, according to Running USA, there were 467,000 marathon finishers, a 9.9% jump over the previous year. More than 30 U.S. marathons made their debuts in 2009, in cities as muscular as Pittsburgh and as modest as Kenosha, Wis. Every town with asphalt seems to want one. In spite of the balky economy, or maybe because of it—the sport's cost is the price of a pair of running shoes—these are the good old days of marathoning.

There is a thriving marathon tourism industry catering to the likes of the Athens runners, who hailed from 88 countries that weren't Greece. Three days before the race, representatives were stationed outside the airport baggage claim area: Marathon Tours and Travel, from Boston; Ali Schneider Marathonreisen, from Germany; Apostolos Greek Tours, from Denver. The tourists filtered out of baggage claim in light jackets and long-sleeved T-shirts that advertised their travels like stickers on old steamer trunks. Boston. Stockholm. Lake Tahoe. Apple Hill Harvest Run. Boston again. San Francisco. Berlin. New York. San Diego. More Boston. Five days later some of the same runners were back at airport check-in kiosks, this time in blue ATHENS CLASSIC MARATHON shirts. The 9,500 foreign marathon runners were leaving with another line on their résumés, another check on the bucket list and often something more profound.

Burfoot would realize his ambitions. Some, anyway. He finished his first family marathon, crossing the line with his distinctly nonrunning son, Daniel. Pheidippides's lesser-known girlfriend ... well, that ending was as unforeseen as the nearly milelong charge of the Athenian hoplites. In the early going Negrón had needed to use approximately every third toilet along Marathon Avenue, and at some point her costumed messenger forged on without her. Amby envisioned Cristina making up time and crossing the line with him and Daniel. She did catch up, but she blew past them with 500 meters left. Miscommunication, apparently. As for the "in sickness and in health" part of the wedding vows....

Negrón had fallen in with Jennifer Shramo around the 20-mile mark. Shramo "coaches" for Team in Training, which assists people with training for endurance events and raises money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She has been a den mother to 500 entrants in more than 30 marathons since 2000; not one of her runners has failed to finish. She grabbed salt from her belt pack, instructed the queasy Negrón to take it with a little water and told her she would soon feel better. She did. When Negrón crossed the finish line, two minutes ahead of Amby, she burst into tears and hugged Shramo.

Shramo was leading a group that had entered independently of Team in Training, a 17-member troupe dubbed Greece Lightning that also was raising money for cancer research. Gail Stephens was a Greece Lightning runner, or more precisely, a walker. She is the sister of former Olympic swimmer Brian Goodell, the men's 400- and 1,500-meter freestyle champion at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. Stephens was a registered nurse working short-stay procedures in her hometown of Mission Viejo, Calif., on May 21, 2004, when she phoned the lab for the results to her own blood test and learned she was more acutely ill than any of her patients. The diagnosis was leukemia. She was 47. Before she turned 50 she did a triathlon, cycled 100 miles and entered the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco. "The only reason I'm alive are the clinical trials I'm on and the research the Leukemia Society has supported," says Stephens, a former UCLA swimmer. Her cancer is being managed but is not in total remission.

The sun was dipping in the Athens sky when Stephens and partner Doug Kemp, who had dedicated each of the 42 kilometers to someone they knew with leukemia or lymphoma, walked hand in hand into the emptying Panathinaiko Stadium. Her lips smiled, her eyes watered. Almost laughing. Almost crying. She looked like she could make a rainbow. "I have about one third fewer red blood cells than everyone out here, so it's a little difficult for me," Stephens said as she searched the back straight for her medal. "I understand there are things I can't do anymore." Completing a marathon is not one.

Nenikèkamen.

This is the alleged word spoken by the mythical messenger the instant before his death. "We are victorious." Maybe Stephens didn't know the original Greek, but an emotional 41-year-old Dutch scientist running to raise money for a charity in his home country certainly did. Eric Spierings had waited for this moment for a quarter of a century, since one of his high school teachers initiated him into the marvels of the Battle of Marathon and taught him the Greek national anthem. Spierings entered the stadium some four hours after his start, bellowing that anthem to honor his mentor and the crowd. He also brandished a scarf with blue letters on a white background: NENIKÈKAMEN.

Sometimes men become myths. Now a myth becomes a man. For those runners who ran and trudged, proudly or painfully, into the old marble stadium, Pheidippides transmogrified from legend to fact.

There are certainly bigger marathons than Athens, but this is the one imprinted in the runner's genetic code.
Marathon running once defined a person. Now it's people who define the marathon.
"You unlock a side of your personality," said one runner. "It's a spiritual experience."
PHOTOPhotograph by BOB MARTINDRESSING THE PART In sewing Burfoot's costume, his wife did her best to re-create the uniform of an Athenian messenger in 490 B.C. The shoes, however, are 2010 models.TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by BOB MARTINCAPED CRUSADERS There were no Spartans at Marathon—the city-state's 2,000 troops arrived after the battle—but the ancient warriors were well-represented at Athens (above), albeit not among the leading runners at the start (top).PHOTOPhotograph by BOB MARTINRUNNING BRAVE After reporting the victory to the citizens of Athens, Pheidippides collapsed and died, as envisioned in this 1869 painting by Luc-Olivier Merson.PHOTOPhotograph by BOB MARTINTWO FOR THE ROAD Shramo (in cap) helped Negrón complete the marathon and was rewarded at the finish line with a tearful embrace.