The world of road running celebrates the birth of the marathon this month. It was 2500 years ago that Pheidippides, a Greek messenger carried his message of victory to Athens.

On arriving in the city it is said that he only had energy enough to shout “we have victory’ before falling to the ground and dying.

It was this apparent valiant act, about which Robert Browning wrote a poem in 1879, that inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin to initiate the modern day marathon in the first Olympics which were held in Athens in 1896.

Further research into Pheidippides brought to light that the marathon was only the final tip of the messengers exploits.  The battle between the Greeks and Persians was not a surprise attack. The Greeks knew that their enemies were on the seas and landing on the plains of Marathon, a town south east of Athens.

Pheidippides, a renowned messenger, was dispatched to make his way to the west to the city of Sparta to request the assistance of the Spartans in fending off the Persians. It was a distance of 255 kilometres over what is now the Corinth canal, through vineyards and over mountains that took him on 1000metre climbs. 

On Mount Parthenium Pheidippides is said to have met the Greek god Pan. It is known that Pheidippides completed the grueling journey in less than 36 hours. When he arrived in Sparta the request for help was turned down. It was the ninth day of the month and by law the Spartans could only take the field on the next full moon.

Pheidippides returned to Athens with the message, adding a further 255km trek to our hero’s journey, and this was obviously followed, probably at a less intense pace, with a trip down to Marathon with the army.

Although the Greek had horseback messengers it is thought that the rocky and hilly road to Athens was better suited to a runner. By the time Pheidippides was dispatched on his historic run to announce Athenian victory the valiant messenger had already amassed around 540 kilometres.  On arriving in Athens the 40 year old declared ‘we have victory’ before collapsing and dying from exhaustion.

Since 1982, the epic journey to Sparta has been celebrated by the annual Spartathlon 255km race which closely retraces Pheidippides footsteps but suffers over a 50% drop-out rate of participants.  This is recognized as probably the hardest ultra race in the world, and it bears remembering that in 490 BC our iconic messenger completed the journey twice before tackling the Marathon the Athens run which in those days is estimated to be just over 40 Kilometres.       

Next Sunday thousands of runners from all round the world will tackle the annual Athens marathon in celebration of 2500 years of the marathon.  

In order to achieve  the  now universally accepted 42.195km distance the start has been moved west to the marathon museum  and at 7km runs around the tomb commemorating the battle of marathon before engaging a 20km hill to the ridge and outskirts of modern day Athens. From there the final 12km are leg crashing downhill to the finish at the original 1896 Olympic stadium. The same route was used for the 2004 Olympic marathon.  

As always there will be a considerable contingent of South African runners amongst the field and this year the Association of International Marathons and Distance races (AIMS) hold their congress on the same weekend which brings additional Southern African ties.

In 1984 Comrades runner Leon Swannepoel won the race in 2:28:53 and his feat was repeated by  Kevin Flanegan in  1987 with a 2:25:14.

This past week Comrades Marathon, Pietermaritzburg’s Weekend Witness Marathon, the Gaborone Marathon, and the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon have been represented at the Congress.

Comrades Marathon will be presenting a painting by local artist Henk Vos to AIMs for their museum. Comrades veteran Vos, who was also the first entrant of the 2011 race, will be completing the first leg of his Circle of Life tour in Athens and will be present not only to hand over the painting which depicts the marathon and comrades from Pheidippides to modern day, but will also complete the race.

Not surprisingly special medals have been struck for this year race. These are manufactured by 1000km Medals, a South African company, who have evolved an association with AIMS and now provides medals and trophies to many of the marathons around the world, including London and Berlin. In addition a boxed medal and ribbon presentation complete with a potted history of the marathon has become a sought after memento by runners worldwide who want a means of commemorating 2500 years of marathoning. (

Marathons continue to grow around the world with a record of over 7500 men running times faster than two hours 20 minutes last year. The lottery for London Marathon filled in less than a week, and many o the most popular events closing their entries long before the initially stated deadline date. Its not only the number of marathoners but also the number of races that is increasing, often in less traditional places.

In spite of adverse weather conditions, and cultural norms that can be restrictive on sporting activities the growth of marathon running in the Middle East has been exceptional.

The Beirut marathon for example commenced in 2003 with 5000 participants across a 42km, 10km and 5km. On Sunday 7 November over 27000 people will participate in the same three distances and runners will come from Europe, Africa and North America to experience the race. This weekend the second Amman marathon will be run with a whopping 15 000 runners, a 30% increase on last year’s events. Great races such as the Dubai Marathon, the Dead Sea Ultra and Marathon are being joined by new events such as the flat and fast Aqaba Red Sea marathon which is an ideal start to the festive season held in Aqaba on 12 October.

Marathon running has become a lifestyle with many runners now making trips around the world to experience differ cultures, challenges and conditions. Unlike the runners it attracts the marathon may be getting old at 2500 years, but if anything it is speeding up and getting stronger as it heads towards the next century.

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