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Unlike Speedy, we wore well-designed running gear. Our clothing was exactly right for the distance and weather. My shirt had such a wide mesh that it was more holes than fabric, the better to allow evaporative cooling. My shorts were featherweight nylon. While Speedy was almost certainly not burdened with heavy armor ("He would have been a damn silly Greek to run that way," Dean Miller, a professor of history at the University of Rochester, told me), he may well have worn the standard tunic, which would have been impossibly hot compared with present-day running garb. Let us hope he ran naked, like runners pictured on Greek vases of the period.
My shoes were lightweight racing flats no more burdensome than ballet slippers. Speedy wasn't so lucky. Soldiers of his time wore boots or sandals or else went barefoot. Professor Badian points out that much would have depended on whether he came from Athens or from the countryside, for while footgear-was customarily worn in the city, rural folk often went shoeless. W. R. Connor, a Princeton classics professor, thinks it unlikely that Speedy wore sandals. "I'd hate to run 25 miles with a thong between my toes," he said. "I'd rather go barefoot." Of the authorities I consulted, only Professor Helene Foley of the Department of Classics at Stanford thought Speedy might conceivably have worn boots—"especially if the trail was rough." Halfway to Athens, I felt an ugly blister working its way around the second toe of my right foot. I knew, however, that my predecessor had felt far worse. As I imagined his agony, his pain and my own began to merge, almost as if the intervening years had never existed.
Liquid was offered to us every few miles. No matter how unpalatable, it served to replace the fluids lost as we ran. Speedy was less fortunate. Few streams or rivers flow through the Attic landscape. Speedy might occasionally have begged a cup of water at a farmhouse along his route, but the supply would have been undependable at best. The scarcity of water is significant, because few problems that can beset a runner are more dangerous than dehydration.
We modern athletes were all at least passably well trained. Distance running is so common today that athletes know exactly how to prepare for a race. In training, marathoners rarely run fewer than 10 miles a day, and they combine long, easy runs with speed work that toughens them for the rigors of racing. In Speedy's day little was known about such distance training. The longest race in the ancient Olympics was only 4,800 meters. Professor Miller said, "Long-distance running per se just wasn't trained for." As I ran along, I thought of Speedy, his legs aching, his lungs burning, all because he didn't know the training routines that are considered rudimentary by present-day runners.
He may well have been hungry, too, and—especially toward the end of his run—weak. Most distance runners today follow the carbohydrate-loading technique, a pre-competition dietary practice that packs muscles with significantly more fuel than they ordinarily contain, and thus postpones exhaustion. Although Speedy's diet was probably high in carbohydrates such as grains and beans, it is unlikely that he would have eaten particularly well under battlefield conditions. Even if he didn't run nonstop, as modern marathoners do, but alternately ran and walked, he might very easily have suffered from hypoglycemia—low blood sugar—long before he was anywhere near Athens.
Finally, while we modern marathoners were running purely for the challenge of the race, Speedy would have had a quite different reason—one that, oddly, is rarely if ever mentioned in published accounts of his run. Consider what had happened that morning. After eight days of uneasy waiting in their encampment, the outnumbered Athenians had finally determined to attack. It was obvious that the battle would be significant, so significant that even Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy, was there to record it. Feelings between Greek and Persian ran high. Earlier, the Persian ruler Darius had sent heralds to Athens, demanding submission and symbolic gifts of earth and water. Affronted, the Athenians flung the Persians into a pit, suggesting that they collect their own earth.
At dawn, therefore, the Athenians, 9,000 strong, thundered across the plain and swooped down on the Persians, who, it turned out, had chosen a weak position. By midday, 6,400 of them lay dead. If Herodotus, a shameless flag-waver for the Greek cause, is to be believed, only 192 Athenians lost their lives.
Yet even as they reveled in victory, the Athenians faced a crisis. The Persians, clambering into their ships in retreat, would now head southward and attack Athens itself. This surely is the main reason Speedy would have been dispatched, not just to carry word of the triumph. "Now he had an urgent message," Professor Connor told me. "It was 'The Persians are coming.' " The dust of battle was still settling as the Athenians packed their gear and began hurrying toward Athens, knowing that the Persians would soon be there. It is thus at least plausible that the Athenian force would have sent a courier ahead to warn the populace. If so, his run would have taken place under quite different conditions from those Kardong, Smead and the rest of us were experiencing. Speedy would have been running not just for a laurel wreath and a medal but for his capital's survival.
Under these circumstances, Speedy might well have run unwisely, going too quickly and neglecting to stop for water. In hot-weather races, I have often seen runners staggering from heat exhaustion as they try to reach the finish line despite the protests of their bodies. Even Kardong, an experienced internationalist, suffered from its early stages as he approached Athens. "I was on the verge of heat exhaustion," he told me at dinner that night. "I felt dazed and confused."
If Speedy did in fact die after delivering his message, I think I know what the cause was. In his poem Pheidippides, Robert Browning attributes it to a heart attack ("Joy in his blood bursting his heart"), but that seems unlikely. Heart attacks, while not unknown in trained runners, are so rare as to be of negligible probability. No, it was almost certainly heat stroke, which can develop when an exhausted athlete pushes on despite physical warnings. "The only thing that can kill a healthy runner, other than cars and buses, is heat stroke," Dr. Ullyot had said just before the marathon. "If you get dizziness or a headache you're in trouble. Stop running." In imagination, I see Speedy, confused just as Kardong had been and feeling a headache's first pulsing throbs, yet continuing nonetheless to push down the long road toward Athens and duty. I see him stumbling into the city and delivering, not his entire message—"Rejoice! We conquer! The Persians are coming!"—but only its first part.