SI Vault
The 2,500-Year-Old Man
November 15, 2010
Pheidippides probably didn't make his heroic run after the Battle of Marathon, but that didn't stop thousands of people from celebrating its anniversary—and the classic test of endurance it inspired—by racing from Marathon to Athens
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 15, 2010

The 2,500-year-old Man

Pheidippides probably didn't make his heroic run after the Battle of Marathon, but that didn't stop thousands of people from celebrating its anniversary—and the classic test of endurance it inspired—by racing from Marathon to Athens

View CoverRead All Articles

To Akropolis! Run, Pheidippides, one race more!

—ROBERT BROWNING, Pheidippides, 1879

The costume ... well, that was her idea. When Amby Burfoot said he would run the Athens Classic Marathon in commemoration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, Cristina Negrón, professional editor and amateur seamstress, decided with the same enthusiasm Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland reserved for putting on shows in the old barn that if her husband planned to travel in the footsteps of Pheidippides, he should look like Pheidippides. She scanned history books for representations of the messenger who, according to legend, ran from Marathon to Athens, proclaimed victory and dropped dead on the spot. She consulted Google Images. She used her imagination. Three yards of metallic gold fabric, another three of knit gold, and two weeks later: Pheidippides. "The most important thing to know is Amby really wanted abs," Negrón says. "He'd never had them before. I ended up quilting them. Puffy, quilted abs so he could be a manly man." She sewed herself a matching outfit and went as Pheidippides's lesser-known girlfriend.

Now, dressing as Pheidippides to run a marathon in Athens is like being an Elvis imitator in Las Vegas. You are not alone.

By a thoroughly unscientific count, 30 Pheidippideses were among the 12,500 runners at the start for the marathon, which was held on Oct. 31. (Halloween was mere coincidence.) Included were a dozen helmeted and red-caped Germans and Spaniards who looked more like ancient Spartans than Athenians but got the benefit of the doubt because the tie goes to the runner. There were also three goddess Athenas, a barefoot man in an Animal House toga and a determined fellow from San Francisco who ran the 26 miles and 385 yards in 60°-plus heat while wearing 35 pounds of armor and toting a shield and spear. (He collapsed from exhaustion at the finish some seven hours after his start. You couldn't have seen that coming.)

Among the multiple Pheidippideses in the Athens Classic Marathon, Burfoot was surely the only one to have won Boston. He did it in 1968. That is a big deal. But of the 75 or so marathons he has entered, Athens became the most significant the moment Cristina and Burfoot's son, Daniel, 33, announced in August, on his 64th birthday, that they would accompany him to marathoning's ground zero. Burfoot's first go at Athens would be a family pilgrimage, a misty journey that would tug at his emotions as insistently as the pain that has nagged his left calf since he had meniscus surgery in June.

Two generations of American long-distance stars also heeded the siren call of Athens. Jeff Galloway, once Burfoot's roommate at Wesleyan, an authority on marathon training and the owner of two running stores named for Pheidippides, went for the 16th time. (He plugged his first store, opened in Tallahassee in 1973, as THE NAME IN RUNNING FOR OVER 2,400 YEARS. Later he amended the slogan to SINCE 490 B.C.) Kathrine Switzer, 63, the first woman to enter and run at Boston, in 1967, had not run a road marathon since 1976, but she returned to Marathon to race for the first time since sobbing on a nearby beach after the Greek athletics federation refused to sanction her entry into its marathon 38 years ago. Joan Benoit Samuelson, winner of the first women's Olympic marathon, competed in Athens just three weeks after running 2:47:50 in Chicago at age 53.

"The power of the story is indelible," Galloway says. "Once I ran by an architectural site at a village near Marathon. It was dated 560 B.C. I was thinking people of that village might have been out there encouraging Pheidippides. That drove home the reality."

Of 2,200 marathons worldwide there certainly are bigger ones than Athens, with more prize money. There are marathons with more dramatic topography—"A big uphill for 20 miles, and then it's yahoo, down into town," 1972 Olympic champion Frank Shorter says of the Greek course—and more scenic vistas. A modern Pheidippides runs past car dealerships, minimarts, a lumberyard, a Vietnamese restaurant, gas stations and bathroom-fixture stores, although in Pikermi, a town halfway from Marathon to Athens, he glimpses the back of a statue of a runner plunked on the Marathon Avenue median. (The statue wears no bib—or anything else, for that matter. He is, in effect, mooning competitors.) But in the year of the Big Two-Five-Oh-Oh, Athens is king. For those fanatics who have timing chips inserted in their running shoes and regularly tackle a distance that has become the Mount Everest of the common man (more than 45,000 took part in Sunday's New York race) this is the marathon imprinted in the genetic code.

In Athens there is an aspect of memory, but memory plays tricks. Like history.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5