With the Atlanta Track Club and USATF unveiling a map of the 2020 U. S. Team Trials Marathon course, I thought it might be a good time to reconnect (tongue firmly in cheek) with history’s original Marathoner, the one and only Pheidippides.


Pheidippides in Athens

First, a little background.

Fame is a bitch! Take, take, take, that’s all she does (and why is fame a ‘she’, anyway?) But if fame is a handful, can you imagine trying to uphold the status of a legend?  

As has been proven time and time again, once the public gets a hold of you there’s a stiff price to be paid for any of the benefits that might come with such renown. All you have to do is ask Caesar, Lincoln, Elvis, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix or Michael Jackson, all of whom died of fame. So, you either nip such fame in the bud, like Dave Chappell, or find a way to accommodate it, because down that road has come many a man’s (woman’s) ruin. 

Take the case of Pheidippides, the legendary Greek messenger sent from the plains of Marathon to the city of Athens to tell the tale of the great military victory over the invading force from Persia in 492 B.C.  

Out of that single 40k run has come not only an Olympic event – and the Trials that precede it – but an entire industry, as well, as hundreds of such events are staged annually in cities worldwide for millions of avid runners. 

Yet in the case of Pheidippides and the Marathon, it took two and a half millennia for that history to finally come to pass.  That’s what happens when the first guy who does it dies. Takes a certain amount of fortitude for the next guy to step up. 

But back in 492 B.C. Pheidippides was no myth. He had a family and friends and people he worked with. Then, look what happened, one poorly paced run and he was marked throughout history. 

Being a day-runner, or herald – as it was then called – he must have been right behind the front lines while the actual battle against the Persians was raging. Then, when the tide turned in favor of the defending Athenians, he was called for what would become his historic assignment.

“Hey, you, Pheidippides. We need you to run back to Athens tell them we’re OK out here. Got it?  Tell them it’s good news. But you gotta hustle.”

Maybe his commanding officer didn’t know Pheidippides had already run over 250k to Sparta and back looking for reinforcements a few days earlier. Notwithstanding, the guy answered the call and ran back to Athens, announcing, “Rejoice we conquer!” before succumbing to his efforts. 

But as the late radio broadcast legend Paul Harvey used to say, there was more to The Rest of the Story.  And now we have The Man himself to ask. 

There have been mystical beings in every age, Highlander types, who lived beyond their eras. And who knew, Pheidippides was one himself?

Q: Well, Pheidippides, let me just say what an honor it is to to finally meet you. And thanks for taking the time. You look amazing, I mean, considering the years. But, Dude, let me ask you this, did you ever think you would become a historic figure when you made that run back in 492 B.C.?

A:  No, I really thought of nuthin’ at the time. Totally just did it for the guys back there. It’s just something I felt I had to do, and I did it, that’s all.

Q:  Looking back on it, do you ever think about that day and say, gosh, you know, if I had to do it over again I wouldn’t have died at the end? Maybe paced yourself a little better?

A:  Well, you know I, (he struggles for words) I, I really didn’t die. I just didn’t die, that’s all.

Q:  What?! That’s the first I’ve ever heard of this. How – what do you mean you didn’t die?  This sounds like something out of Twin Peaks.

A:  Well, I was running behind on my chariot payments. My wife, I was sick of my wife. You know, I had three kids, a wife, overpayments, I had to disappear, that’s all. So I faked it. I just went back to town and hung around for a while. Then when things quieted down I went up to Sparta where I opened a messenger service.

Q:  That’s crazy, amazing. And you made it all up on the spot?

A:  Yeah, kinda. It came to me while I was running. You know how that is, you do your best thinking on the run. But it’s as simple as you just do what you gotta do. In that sense it’s like the run, you just do it.

Q:  Well, you know, that does sound like how you have to run the marathon these days. Prepare well and then don’t overthink it. Let it happen. But let’s go back. Before you started running for the army what did you do for a living? Were you a regular soldier or already a messenger?

A:  No. It’s just somethin’ that came about on its own, really. Sometimes they would make me crawl inside these holes, you know, tunnels, to see if there were any enemy soldiers in there, like you guys in Vietnam.  That’s when I learned to run so fast. I just wouldn’t do it. 

Q:  So they had you pegged in one job, but wouldn’t refusing an order get you in trouble with your commanding officer?

A:  Yeah, but I still was going to do it, because I wasn’t going back down in those holes. Besides, they used to call me Puny. 

Q:  Puny?  Not Pliny?

A:  That’s what they used to call me in the army, Puny Pheidippides. And I didn’t like it, you know. They said I could get in those holes, because I was so small. But I wouldn’t do it, and instead I’d  run away. And that’s when they transferred me to another company and made me a messenger. 

Q:  Well, Pheidippides, that’s an unbelievable story. I can’t believe that the truth never made it down through time. We had it all different. 

Anyway, we can’t thank you enough for taking the time and giving us a little background on what has become part of the Olympic and athletic lore. We wish you all the best, and hope you keep away from those holes.

A:  Thanks. No problem there. I’ve put on a little weight over the millennia, so my old army buddies wouldn’t even recognize me anymore. 


The 2020 U. S. Marathon Trials could prove historic too, if for no other reason than they will be staged on leap day Saturday February 29th.  A virtual tour of the course can be viewed here.

Good luck to all with dreams of laurels and a starting spot on the 2020 Trials starting line.


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