Spartathlon - A historic path?

I've never really believed the common "Marathon Legend" of Pheidippidies. The most common version of the story being that a battle was won in the city of Marathon and our hero ran to Athens and upon announcing this victory he collapsed and dies. It never really was believable before I started to run and got less so the more I did. How could a professional dong distance courier collapse and die after 4 hours work? That would qualify him as one of the worst at his job in Greece. That is nothing for thousands of people each year to celebrate.



A couple of years ago I became aware of a story about Pheidippidies running from Marathon to Athens and then from Athens to Sparta (150ish miles), not to tell of victory but to raise an army for the struggling Athenians who were about to be invaded by the Persians. It was upon his arrival here that he died. This seemed much more believable, long distance couriers would have been expected to comfortably cover distances of 50+ miles at the drop of a headdress. A 150 mile run in 36 hours seems like a big enough journey to both make historical significance and also to die from.


But the plot thickens the more you read into it. I found stories about the run from Marathon to Athens not actually happening, running from Athens to Sparta and back again, Athens to Sparta, back again, To marathon and back again (close to 400 miles) and obviously stories that none of this happened at all.


So, in summary of what the story could possibly be;


Version of Events 

How likely do I believe it to be true 

How much I want it to be true 


Pheidippidies ran from Marathon to Athens to announce victory and in doing so collapsed and died

Very Unlikely

Not much

If this is true then we can all relax safe in the knowledge that each 26.2 miles we are running we are reliving a historical event

Pheidippidies ran from Marathon to Athens to raise an army. He then ran back having failed to do this and died.

Very Unlikely


If this is true we should all be running double marathons as our standard distance.

Pheidippidies ran from Marathon to Athens to raise an army. He then ran to Sparta and in doing so collapsed and died



This would seem more sensible and mean that the standard historic distance would be 179 miles. Nice.

Pheidippidies ran from Athens to Sparta, covering 150ish miles in 36 hours, sent the request for help and then collapsed and died.



This will mean the race that I am about to run has huge historical significance.

Pheidippidies ran from Marathon to Athens then to Sparta, sent the request for help and then ran back, collapsed and died.


Lots and Lots

Imagine a historical run of nearly 400 miles? That would be worth doing.

None of this happened at all


Not at all

Could it be that all of this is false? I'm happy with the marathon being a myth but I would like to think that I am re-tracing history when I start the Spartathlon in Athens in 7 weeks.


From scanning the available sources on the interweb it would appear that there are 2 very interesting possibilities to consider. One that the marathon as we know itnever actually happened. The account given by Herodotus (the "Father of History" and responsible for the account of Pheidippidies journey does not mention Marathon at all. 


The Athenian generals sent Pheidippides, a professional runner, to Sparta to ask the spartans to help fight the Persian army, who had arrived by ship at Marathon. Pheidippides completed the 145 mile journey and arrived in Sparta the day after he left Athens. He delivered the Generals' request, then returned to Athens with the Spartan's reply - which was that due to observances they could not leave Sparta until the full moon. Upon receiving this news the generals decided to attack the Persians anyway, the result being an Athenian victory against seemingly overwhelming odds. 

Having been beaten in the field, the Persians returned to their ships and set sail for Athens - to attack it while undefended. However the Athenians marched the 25 miles overland and succeeded in reaching Athens before the ships, at which the Persians thought better of their plan and beat a retreat by sea.


After it was all over, 2000 Spartan troops arrived at Marathon and were much impressed by the Athenian victory. Their hasty journey along Pheidippides' 145 mile route took them three days.


A second possibility is that whatever running he did he managed to stay alive after doing so.


So, "The marathon" never happened and if it did it certainly did not kill him. These two ideas are retold by thousands every year as they line up for the "ultimate" feat of human endurance. I've seen a T-Shirt that said "couldn't Pheidippidies have died at 20 miles?" It is very unlikely that he died at 26. He may even have lived after 150 miles, or even 400.


Whatever is true I will still feel that I am running part of history as I take to the trail in Athens. I'll imagine that I am the messenger given the task of requesting an army in 36 hours. There will be a real sense of purpose as I run through the night and run myself into despair and pain. My run obviously won't be so critical as the one that may have taken place 2500 years ago.


No one will die if I don't finish and I certainly don't intend to die if I do.