Saturday, 14 September 2019 22:51:11

The Origin of Marathon Races

The First Marathoner Ran Barefoot, but His Feat Inspired Nike

Today, in Vienna, Austria, Eliud Kipchoge battled against time; and he won. He became the first person to run the 42km Marathon in less than two hours.

Marathon Bay and City
2,508 years ago, 1,700 km away from Vienna, in the Greek city of Marathon, a different type of battle took place; and it gave birth to the Marathon, the event Kipchoge is famous for, and the name Nike, the world-famous shoes he runs in.

In his book, 50 Battles that Changed the World, William Weir lists the Battle of Marathon as #1 among the 50 most significant battles of all time. It pitted Greece against Persia, and at stake was the survival of democracy.

On 29 September 490 BC, 30,000 Persian soldiers landed on the Bay of Marathon on the East Coast of present-day Greece. Their mission was to capture Athens for Darius, the King of Persia. At that time, Persia was the undisputed superpower of the Mediterranean; and Darius considered himself the ruler of the world.

Twenty years earlier, Athenians had overthrown their tyrannical king, Hippias. He fled to Persia, after which Athenians invented demokratía, a new government system that allowed citizens to choose their leaders. Athen's economy flourished, and it started flexing its muscles around the region. With its financial support, some Persian-occupied states in the Mediterranean revolted against Persian rule, so Darius vowed to punish Athens. He wanted to reinstate Hippias as Athens' ruler in return for his pledge of allegiance to Persia. However, Athenians had tasted demokratía, and they were not ready to give it up. They vowed to fight to preserve it.

At that time, Greece was not a unified state but a federation of city-states such as Athens, Carthage, Sparta, and Plataea.

Athenians learnt of the impending Persian attack two weeks earlier, and General Miltiades assembled all men of fighting age on the hills above Marathon Bay. In total, he had 11,000 men. Only women, children, and the elderly remained in Athens city, and they were instructed never to surrender to the Persians. If their men lost the war, they planned to commit mass suicide.

On learning how large the approaching Persian army was, Miltiades sent Pheidippides, a professional runner, to Sparta to ask for help. Pheidippides covered the 210 kilometres from Athens to Sparta in two days, and he took another two days to return. The Spartans were willing to help, but they said they would delay their departure because of an ongoing religious festival. When Pheidippides returned without Spartan soldiers, Miltiades had no choice but to work with the available soldiers.

The Athenians observed Persian soldiers from the hills above Marathon Bay as they disembarked from their vessels and took positions in the plains below. They had thousands of infantry spearmen, thousands of archers on horseback, and thousands of more archers on foot. The Persians outnumbered the Athenians by 3 to 1.

After two days, Miltiades realized he had fallen into a trap. The Persians split into two; their cavalry unit boarded their vessels and headed off to Athens, which was unprotected.

The goal of the remaining soldiers was to distract the Athenians as the cavalry unit sailed around the bay to capture Athens. The Persians didn't think the small Athenian army would dare attack their vast army. However, Miltiades figured out that his forces could overpower the archers and the ill-equipped soldiers the Persians had left behind without the cavalry unit.

He ordered his forces to attack, and it worked. It was a quick and decisive victory that killed 6,000 Persian soldiers, and the rest ran off to the sea. Only 198 Athenians died.

Although they had won at Marathon, the war was not yet over. Athenians needed to go back to Athens to defend it before the Persians arrived. Miltiades sent Pheidippides to run the 42 km from Marathon to Athens to inform the Athenians they left behind that their soldiers had won the Battle of Marathon, and they were on their way back to defend them. They should not surrender to the Persians.

Pheidippides arrived before the Persians, but he was exhausted. At the gate, he mustered the little breath remaining, and he announced: "Nike, Nike" (meaning "Victory, Victory") to the anxious Athenians.

With those words, he collapsed and died.

Today, his feat is celebrated in city streets worldwide when elite athletes gather to compete in 42 km races.


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