2018 Reading List | Book 16 of 52
Road to Sparta
“And first, before they left the city, the generals sent off to Sparta a herald, one Pheidippides, who was by birth an Athenian, and by profession and practice a trained runner.”
…[Pheidippides completed this journey] “the day after he set out”
I don’t know about you, but for as long as I’ve been aware of the marathon, I’ve heard the story of how Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens (a distance of 24.85 miles, not 26.2) to announce to the Athenians the victory of the Greeks over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. Upon exclaiming “Nike! Nike! Nenikekamen!” (Victory! Victory! Rejoice, we conquer!), Pheidippides keels over and dies from having run such a long distance to deliver the news.
It’s a romantic story, but as it turns out, is only a small part of the story. The author of Road to Sparta, Dean Karnazes, is an ultrarunner, meaning he regularly runs races in the 100 miles range. After running his first marathon, he lived, and thought it quite strange that Pheidippides, a professional runner (hemerodromoi), would have died running a relatively short distance. This led Mr. Karnazes on a quest to discover Pheidippides’ true run and Mr. Karnazes own Greek roots.
The reason I started this review with the quote above is that Herodotus makes mention of an initial run from Athens to Sparta. Mr. Karnazes says that Herodotus starts a trend of writing about this as if it’s no big deal and historians have followed suit since then. Athens to Sparta is +/- 150 miles and Herodotus writes that Pheidippides did this run within two days. There is a race called the Spartathalon that seeks to retrace this epic run. Mr. Karnazes does this race, I believe in 2014, and the book mostly follows this race while switching back and forth between Greek history related to Pheidippides and Mr. Karnazes own heritage.
The 150 miles between Sparta and Athens is not an easy run. There are mountains, rugged terrain, and heat. Pheidippides ran this in 490BC in August in Greece. Hot and humid. Pheidippides purpose in running to Sparta was to let the Spartans know that the Persians were on their way to Athens and that immediate help was needed. Due to religious observance, the Spartans would not be able to leave for another 6 days. That was probably not going to be enough time before the Persians arrived, so after running 150 miles, Pheidippides had to almost immediately turn around and run 150 miles back to Athens to let the Athenians know about the delayed Spartans. The Greeks and Persians were preparing for battle in Marathon, 24.85 miles from Athens. Pheidippides then had to run to Marathon to also let the soldiers know the Spartans would be delayed.
You with me? Pheidippides didn’t run a marathon and then die. We’re at roughly 325 miles now in the span of 5 days. Once the battle of Marathon ensues, the Greeks, despite being outnumbered nearly 5 to 1, pull off an amazing victory. Pheidippides must then run back to Athens to announce this victory. So, instead of my original understanding of Pheidippides dying after running a marathon, no, he died after running the equivalent of 13+ marathons in an unbelievably short period of time. He would have been running through the night, with basic food items, and no gatorade.
Pheidippides is credited with having a large part in saving Greece and western democracy. If he had not shared the information when he did, the Athenians at Marathon would have been expecting Spartan reinforcements before they were set to arrive. Knowing that they weren’t coming, they adjusted strategy and won the Battle of Marathon.
This adds a bit more to the story! You’ll need to read the book to find out why the marathon we know today is 26.2 miles instead of 24.85. It’s quite an interesting story.
This was a very entertaining book. I’m a runner, so this was one of 4 books I’m reading this year related to running. It was also very interesting. Historians have glossed over this feat whereas the author was able to dig deep and let the reader know what it means to run 153 miles (the modern-day Spartathalon, considered one of the toughest races in the world). Think about then immediately turning around and doing it again. And then running two more marathons back to back.