A Marathon Odyssey – Malcolm Anderson
Chapter 2 – After In the Beginning
I started reading books on marathons and googling marathon related websites. I flicked through running magazines at the bookstores while trying not to spill cups of coffee all over them. I wanted to learn about where it all started and what’s going on now in the world of marathons. I was enrolled in my own immersion class.
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As interesting as all this was, and still is, what I really wanted to do was to experience it all. One night on the Internet I found the Athens marathon. I found The Place – Marathon – where the legend began. A short drive, well, long run, from Athens. Marathon is the site of the historic battle in 490 BC where it is said that Pheidippides, the messenger, immediately after the battle, but before cell phones, ran to Athens to announce that the 20,000 invading Persians had been defeated by the vastly outnumbered Greeks. Only 192 Greeks died, compared to 6,400 Persians.
That event, regardless of what actually happened, inspired a story, which centuries later led to a poem, that in turn begat some ideas, that begat some smooth talking, that in turn begat, well, anyway … led to the original 1896 Olympic marathon; the same route used in 1896 was also used in the 2002 Olympics.
Well that’s a little too brief I guess. Here’s the story.
The Persian plan had been to invade and capture Athens. It’s the sort of thing that happened in those days. This was no friendly merger. Legend has it that Pheidippides was sent to Sparta to request Spartan help to repel the Persians; word was out they were on their way. He covered the distance of about 150 miles in two days without Nikes, gels, sports drinks or an MP3 player. The run is now commemorated with the annual Spartathon race each year.
Depending on which source you read, the Spartans either didn’t want to help because of the festivals they were currently engaged in, or the Athenians couldn’t wait for when the Spartans would be ready. With email down, Pheidippides ran back to Athens to pass the news on and immediately headed over to Marathon for his moment in history. The Athenians prepared for the worst – rape, pillage, plunder, murder, Paris Hilton, etc, and planned to evacuate the city once they had burnt it down so the Persians couldn’t have it.
We’ll have to wait for the definitive account of the actual event – the Hollywood Epic – but for now we do at least know, we think, that the Greeks strategically outsmarted and out-battled the Persians, on a Friday possibly, and claimed an outstanding and extraordinary victory. The Persians retreated, and Pheidippides, no doubt still feeling the effects of his brisk run to Sparta and back, was ordered to speedily return to Athens to share the breaking news before the folks set the place alight.
Pheidippides made it, as we know, and told the Athenians the battle had been won. He then dropped dead, the story goes, from exhaustion. Who wouldn’t?
That’s the sort of action, commitment and resilience that will get you into the history books. Well, not straight away. Legends take time. The Greek historian Herodotus made mention of Pheidippides’ journey to Sparta and the Battle of Marathon but said nothing about the ‘running-to-say-we’ve-won-now-I’ll-drop-dead’ story. Plutarch, another Greek writer, added this about 500 years later. He also mentioned other collapsing all-day runners (these were messengers – known as hemeroromoi). Then, not long after, Lucian, another writer, added the words to Pheidippides’ arrival in Athens: “Rejoice! We are Victorious.”
Even Pheidippides’ name is up for dispute. Some scholars suggest his real name was Philippides, which in ancient Greek means “the son of a lover of horses.” Doesn’t sound too heroic does it, and you’ve got to wonder. The suspicion is that at some point in history his name was changed to Pheidippides.
Not much happened for hundreds of years as the world kept busy creating western history through wars, famines, wars, diseases, wars, arts and literature, wars, music, the invention of rugby, revolutions, colonialism, evolution, the renaissance period, wars, and that industrial revolution thing. Then in 1879, while the British and the Zulus fought in South Africa and the Pirates of Penzance was first performed, Robert Browning, the English Poet, wrote the poem “Pheidippides”, another work of fact and fiction.
Inspirational enough, however, to motivate Michel Breal, a French professor of Languages, to propose and market to the 1896 Olympic planning committee that a race from Marathon be held. The sales pitch and lobbying worked, and the rest, as they say, is history.
So the story is never quite consistent and some basic facts still remain unknown – his name, if he was the same messenger as the one who made the Sparta journey, the words used upon arrival in Athens, and even the route he took (there’s a shorter, more logical route inland to get from Marathon to Athens). Even the longer route he took is not 26.2 miles, but we’ll come to that later. Is it possible he simply went the wrong way?
The marathon run of today, like in 1896, finishes in the famous Panathinaikon Olympic Stadium in the centre of Athens, a short stroll from the Acropolis. And so to run this route and immerse myself in the history and mystique seemed a perfect way to understand more about marathons, in addition to it being a tangible goal for my running.
At around the same time, a close friend and I found the Disney marathon on the Internet.
Disney? What’s Disney doing with a marathon?
Well quite a lot as it turns out.
Disney is not just any marathon. We had discovered the Goofy Challenge. Walt Disney World hosts the Goofy Challenge – complete the half marathon around Disney World on the Saturday and you are awarded a Donald Duck medal. Finish the Full marathon on the Sunday and you get a Mickey Mouse medal. Complete both within specified times, and you receive a Goofy medal as well. Three large, spectacular medals. How could we pass up on this opportunity? Almost on impulse, we registered for the Goofy Challenge.
The Walt Disney World Goofy Challenge epitomizes the transition of ‘the marathon’ from legend and Olympic heroes to the worldwide social movement; marathon running becoming mainstream. It’s estimated that about a million people now run a marathon somewhere in the world each year. The numbers are likely to keep increasing. It sounds like a lot, but it’s not when you consider there are five billion potential marathoners living on the planet right now.
People of all ages, shapes and sizes run in marathons to participate in an activity – an experience – that has many, many benefits and can be a lot of fun. What started off in 1896 as an endurance event celebrating a legend in Greece is now a global social movement. People seem to have an unmet need – a need for ‘something’ and a marathon seems to provide it. People reshape their lives.
So there it was. The Athens Marathon in November and the Goofy Challenge in early January. Possible?
Something inside me snapped and it wasn’t my ligaments. I had to experience retracing the historical steps of the Athens marathon and then a few weeks later run with Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy and other famous Disney characters I don’t even know.
For reasons I can’t explain, or due to the moon’s influence on the world’s tidal pattern perhaps, I decided it would be even more interesting with another marathon tucked in between the two. Destination Marathons have become an increasingly popular segment of marathon running. They provide runners with an opportunity to run a marathon at the same time as taking a vacation. Doesn’t sound like much of a vacation, does it? But it’s a big growth area, especially in Europe. Remarkably, I found a marathon on the Internet that fit perfectly between Athens and Disney. It was meant to be. I registered for the Cayman Islands marathon.
So there it was: The Plan. Three marathons in two months. My body had little say in this, of course. Rightly or wrongly, I assumed it would follow the mind. But I now had a tangible goal. Not only to get into shape by training for a marathon, but to immerse myself in marathon running, be able to gain a first-hand look at what it’s all about, and write a book about what I found.
Strangely, the Athens marathon was being run on the same day as the New York City marathon. I’d run one other marathon in my life – New York in 1985. Life sometimes pieces together in unpredictable ways.
I had no idea when I started this book how it would end. Could I do it? Perhaps… Possibly… Maybe.
Well I didn’t know obviously. What you’ll read here is what I did and how I felt over the training and travel period. Someone recently asked if I found what I was looking for. I said quite honestly that I hadn’t realised I was looking for anything. But now, looking back, perhaps subconsciously I was; I just didn’t know it at the time. What I did do over the time was keep absolutely open to any and all experiences. Looking back I see I found a lot of things.