Marathon & Beyond Monday: The Original Marathon

March 28, 2011
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In this episode of Marathon and Beyond Monday, running legend Hal Higdon shares stories of his experiences on the “original” marathon course in Athens, Greece, as well as historical insight on the marathon history. To get a free PDF file with pictures of this episode’s story, click here. Or, scroll down for the full text of the story.

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Text of story:

A Long and Dusty Run

Having run in Athens three times in a half
century, the author prepares for one last trip in the footsteps of Pheidippides.

by Hal Higdon

Twenty miles into the race, the course tilted downward—at last! I had crested the final hill separating the plain of Marathon from Athens, Greece, a long and dusty run on a classical course, a primeval event, one billed by its organizers as “The Original Marathon.” This is where our sport got started 2,500 years ago. Pheidippides: remember his sorry story? “Rejoice, we conquer,” then he died.

Truth be told, despite ancient precedents, the Athens Marathon is not that difficult a race—if you are a well-trained runner and know how to pace yourself. I last ran Athens in the 1980s—twice—but memories remain of those two enjoyable races along with two other races in an international track meet in Athens several decades before.

Let me tell you how to run the classical course. Let me tell you how to avoid the fate of Pheidippides. Relax as you stand on the starting line. Run easily at first. This is good advice for any marathon but particularly for the hilly route leading from Marathon into Athens. Actually, the classical course is mostly flat for the first half, if you ignore a gradual upward slant that peaks just before 10 miles. Hold back: don’t overrun the backside of that first hill. You’ll encounter a short flat as the course turns away from the wine-red sea near the town of Rafina. But the real challenge in the Athens Marathon begins a dozen miles into the race. That is when you start a steady climb lasting a quad-busting eight miles with little relief to the peak point on the course, 801 feet above sea level.

That sounds scary, nearly four times the elevation of Boston’s Heartbreak Hill, but not if you train for the challenge by doing hill repeats and long runs over hilly courses. Pheidippides never had time for such foolishness; he was too busy fighting battles.

I came to Athens in 1980 well prepared and cruised over the crest of the final hill, fire in my eyes. I had Poseidon, the Earth-Shaker, pushing me from behind toward Panathinaiko, the Olympic stadium in downtown Athens. Goddess Athena surely would be waiting beside the finish line to garland my head with an olive branch. Earlier in my career I had run two track races in Panathinaiko as a participant in an international track championship. Twenty-four years old at the time, I ran well, placing second in one race, fifth in another. A quarter century would pass before I returned to Athens to run the marathon with no expectations of victory but with hopes to run honorably, to secure a fast time, perhaps to duck under three hours, to survive to run again, to better the feat of Pheidippides (if that legendary figure has any basis in historical fact).

And those goals seemed well within reach by the time I crested the top of the final hill. Twenty miles: the tough part of the course behind. All that remained was a half-dozen miles, all downhill, then a sharp left turn into Panathinaiko, the Olympic stadium, the original Olympic stadium, the one used for the 1896 Games, not the newer stadium built for the 2004 Games. “Original.” You encounter that term often when you visit Greece. So much of what makes us civilized—from art to literature to government and, let’s not forget, sports—we owe to the ancient Greeks.

The spirit that moves us

Pheidippides: his ghostly aura haunts us, whether truth or legend. Pheidippides owes his place in history to Plutarch writing in the first century, a.d., a half millennium after the battle of Marathon. Herodotus, who wrote his history in the same century as the battle, mentions a runner named Pheidippides carrying a message from Sparta to Marathon before the battle but says nothing about any fatal run by the same messenger afterward.

This seemingly demolishes, or at least diminishes, our rationale in running marathons. But did Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, exist? Homer identifies Achilles as descending from the goddess Thetis and a mortal man, Peleus. Have you encountered any half-gods at McDonald’s lately? Do we accept the story told in The Iliad as historical fact? No, we believe that Homer created wonderful poetry. If students of Greek literature can accept Achilles, runners certainly can embrace Pheidippides as the legendary father or patron saint of our sport.

Those planning the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 may or may not have believed in Pheidippides, but they decided to insert into those Games a long-distance race commemorating his legendary feat. Love them for that.

Long-distance races of 25 miles (or about 40 kilometers) were not that uncommon through Europe toward the end of the 19th century. This was during an era of “pedestrianism” featuring competitive walks and runs and feats over long distances, some of these events lasting for days. Nobody had yet attached the name “marathon” to such events.

Twenty-six miles and 385 yards became accepted as the official distance for the marathon only after the 1908 Olympic Games in London, when the race distance was lengthened more than a mile to permit a start at Windsor Castle and a finish in front of the royal box in the Olympic stadium. For reasons that defy logic, the International Amateur Athletic Federation accepted that odd distance in 1921; the B.A.A. lengthened its course to match that standard in 1924, when Boston hosted the Olympic Trials.

A callow youth

All this historical information related to the marathon was unknown to me, a callow youth, when I arrived in Athens during the summer of 1955 with a U.S. team competing in the Conseil International du Sport Militaire (CISM) Track and Field Championships. I was a member of the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany at the time. I had qualified for the team by participating first in the U.S. Army in Europe (USAREUR) Championships, then in a trial involving athletes stationed in Europe from all four services.

It was my first major international competition, and several on that U.S. team had considerably more athletic talent than I. Ira Murchison would win a gold medal in the 4 3 100 relay at the 1956 Olympic Games. Dick Howard would win bronze in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1960 Games. Discus thrower Pete Retzlaff would play for 11 years for the Philadelphia Eagles, make the Pro Bowl team five times, and eventually become that team’s general manager. Having attended a small college, I was just beginning to sense my potential as a distance runner in track and field, though not yet on the roads. My high point was having placed 11th at the National AAU Cross-Country Championships just before being drafted into the army.

A year before that, I had run the Fairport Harbor Marathon, actually a three-mile race, six laps around the town square in a town east of Cleveland. That three miles was a long way from being a true “marathon,” although this blatant exaggeration failed to disturb me at the time. I was a track guy. Certainly, I knew that Emil Zatopek had won the 1952 Olympic Marathon but only because he also had won the 10,000 meters and 5,000 meters in those same Games. That Zatopek could so easily dispatch the world’s best marathon runners (including James Peters, who held the world record at that time of 2:20:42) indicated to me that those who raced off the track did not possess “the right stuff.” If the Oracle at Delphi had informed me that some day I might run 111 marathons, I would have considered that prediction preposterous.

Being chosen to travel to Greece to compete in a track meet in the Olympic stadium with a U.S. team thus seemed to me a dream fulfilled. As an art major at Carleton College, I had spent many hours seated in a dark room in Miss Jean Vincent’s Art History class staring at slides projected on a screen: slides featuring Greek vases, some with runners on them; slides featuring Greek statues, one notably a discus thrower; slides featuring Greek architecture, including the iconic Parthenon. Did Miss Vincent show us impressionable art students Panathinaiko? Possibly, since the stadium sits almost in the shadow of the Parthenon. Built originally of wood, Panathinaiko was reconstructed of marble by the archon Lycurgus in 329 b.c. It is the only major stadium in the world built entirely of white marble. In a.d. 140, it was expanded to a seating capacity of 50,000 by Herodes Atticus. In 1870, it was refurbished with funds provided by Evangelis Zappas for the Panhellenic Games and finally renovated in 1895 by the Greek shipbuilder and benefactor George Averoff (whose statue stands at its entrance). At maximum capacity, Panathinaiko held 80,000 spectators, its current capacity being 45,000.

The “original” Olympic stadium

My first view of this landmark horseshoe stadium revealed a track not that friendly. Consider the origin of the word “stadium” from the Greek stade, a unit of measurement equal to 192 meters, or approximately 600 feet, the distance for sprint races at the ancient Olympics.

The Olympic track in Athens matched this classical profile, consisting of two straightaways near 180 meters in length, almost side by side, separated by a narrow infield, forcing those running one lap or more into terrifyingly tight turns. This included my teammate Dick Howard, who won the 400 hurdles, his first race at that distance, despite having to break stride navigating the U-turn midrace. The stadium was not friendly to sprinters, either, since the closed end of the track in the horseshoe stadium was a full meter higher than the open end. This was for a logical purpose; it allowed rainwater to drain. But Ira Murchison was forced to run uphill in winning the 100 meters. Nor was the narrow stadium friendly to throwers in the field events—or to spectators observing those events—since errant discus or javelin throws might land in the stands. Fortunately, Pete Retzlaff had an accurate as well as a strong arm and won the discus by landing his throws in the center of the narrow infield.

Running on such a sharply angled track was not new to me; the 220-yard indoor track at Carleton College had been built under the school’s stadium, essentially two 100-yard straightaways tacked together with tight turns. Unplaced in the 5,000, I knew my chances were better in the 3,000-meter steeplechase because of my barrier-clearing ability. (I sometimes had run the low hurdles in high school.) I described my second race in On the Run From Dogs and People, a book first published in 1971, still in print:

In the 3,000-meter steeplechase, I crossed the finish line third, but officials disqualified a Dutch athlete for dragging his trail leg outside the hurdles. George Papavassiliov set a Greek national record while winning, but this infuriated Dick Howard. Dick was by nature an angry man; it took little to kindle his temper. He had stood by the (water) jump and noted that I had exited the water in lane three, forced wide by the tight turn. Papavassiliov, on the other hand, was jumping to the side of the pit to land in lane one. Since he won by half a minute, I didn’t feel like protesting. Howard did.

“Man, they ought to disqualify that Greek cat too,” he complained.

“It’s not that important,” I said, not wishing to start an international incident. “The King is in the stands.”

“I don’t care if the Queen and Jack are up there too,” snapped Howard. “They ought to disqualify that cat.”

Several other Greeks filled the places immediately behind me. The 3,000 steeplechase obviously was the host team’s strongest event. Knowing this, officials provided prizes more grandiose than those offered to other events: gleaming silver trophies. I received for my second-place effort one nearly a foot-and-a-half tall, larger by far than the trophy I would receive a decade later for finishing first American in the Boston Marathon. By then, I realized that I owed long-distance runners as much respect as track runners. I was one of them.

A pilgrimage

And so a quarter century after my first visit, I returned to Greece for what might be called a pilgrimage: to sink my roots into the ground once trod by Pheidippides, legendary figure or not. By 1980, I had 60 marathons under my belt and track races were something I raced infrequently. More a factor in my second visit to Athens was the fact that in the quarter century since visit number one, road racing had become a major sport. This was the decade after Frank Shorter’s Olympic gold, Jim Fixx’s bestselling The Complete Book of Running, and the creation of major marathons—New York, Chicago, Honolulu—with fields in the thousands. Runner’s World was in its ascendancy, its circulation growing toward half a million. This allowed me a certain level of celebrity as a writer about a sport that had offered me little fame during my early years as a competitive runner. My return to Athens was to lead a tour to Greece of citizen runners also wishing to follow in the footsteps of Pheidippides.

In terms of organization in 1980, the event that billed itself as “The Original Marathon” came nowhere near the level of organization of other road races around the world. Races over the classical course had reemerged only in the 1970s, organized more by travel agents than by sports officials. At various times, there was an Athens Marathon in the spring and another in the fall, and it almost seemed that if you were capable of attracting several dozen tourists willing to run the course, someone in Greece would organize a race around you and call it a marathon.

I knew this so did not take my participation in that year’s Athens Marathon too seriously. Sometimes indifference is the best weapon a marathoner can have when achieving a peak performance. You don’t seek that performance; you let the performance seek you. I arrived in Athens in top shape, actually faster at the time of my second visit to Greece than my first, averaging 100 miles a week as I looked several months forward to a marathon at the World Masters Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand, where I would place first in my age group. Thus, to me, Athens was more a long training run than a call to serious competition. That attitude, more than anything else, caused me to float the first 20 miles of the course, indifferent to the faster pace of others and not bothered by the weather, typically still warm in that part of the Mediterranean. That attitude also brought me to the top of the final hill not yet bloodied, still full of running, and with a downhill run to the finish line a half-dozen miles away in Panathinaiko.

Let’s have fun, I thought to myself. In the killing zone, where in too many of my previous marathons I had become unglued, I found what might be described as a second wind. My stride lengthened so as to take advantage of the downhill. My legs and arms moved smoothly in synchronization. My breathing was that of a zephyr. My chin lifted ever so slightly to allow my gaze to rise from the pavement below to the line of runners strung out along the road in front of me. I knew that they would not be able to match my newfound speed. They would be caught. They would be passed.

Dead meat!

Running with the gods

Considering the fact that a more important marathon had been the focus of my training for more than a year, common sense should have dictated that I continue my “float,” that I cruise into Athens at a gentle pace, that I not tempt the fate of Pheidippides by increasing my speed. But a check of my watch suggested that even the slightest improvement in pace might bring me to the finish line under three hours. Did I realize that this would bring me to Panathinaiko in a time faster than that of Spiridon Louis? Probably not. I was not motivated by time; it was more that I wanted to run fast and feel the breath of the Anemoi, the Greek wind gods, in my hair.

Unable to resist temptation, I shifted gears from third to fourth (or maybe to fifth) and found myself easily passing runners whose early pace had been dictated by goals loftier than mine. One by one I slid past them, running possessed, running outside my body. In 2004, I would watch TV transfixed as Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor ran over the same ground in the closing miles of the Olympic Marathon, about to secure, respectively, silver and bronze medals. Was their out-of-body experience the same as mine? I suspected so. Only the recorded time and level of fame were greater. Even the slowest among marathoners are capable of equal achievements when the gods, Greek or otherwise, bless their efforts. This is one of the great appeals of the marathon: in the 26 miles, 385 yards of pavement we touch with our footsteps, we are all equals when it comes to maximizing our talents. On that day in 1980, I finished 16th overall, my time recorded in my diary as 2:50e, the “e” standing for “estimated,” suggesting that nobody at the finish line was paying too much attention.

My memories of that Athens trip are filled more with what went on around the marathon rather than the marathon itself, most specifically dining in the warm evenings at rooftop restaurants in the Plaka (the marketplace), the Parthenon shining whitely and brightly in spotlights on the hills above. I recall traveling to Delphi and hiking up a hill to a stadion more authentic than that in downtown Athens, a single straightaway with marble seats on one side. Like other visitors that day, I stood behind narrow slabs of marble into which were carved parallel grooves, used by ancient sprinters who placed one foot in each groove to give them maximum traction, just like current starting blocks.

Three years later, I returned to Greece for my third trip, again leading a tour group. I would once more run the marathon, but with no serious purpose. This was during a period when Dr. George Sheehan and the Hash House Harriers, an international group of recreational runners, promoted the drinking of beer not merely after the marathon, but also during. (It has been said about the Harriers that they are a group of “drinkers with a running problem.”)

I decided to run Athens that year in the spirit of the Harriers rather than in the spirit of Hermes (the Greek god of speed), using beer as my replacement fluid, not from a desire to get loopy but more to signal (at least to myself) that the race was more for fun than for competition. I started the race with sufficient drachma in a rear pocket so that I could stop at taverna along the route and purchase bottles of beer. I did this at the first taverna, plopping my drachma onto the counter to the amusement of those sitting at tables within. Not wishing to waste time, I bolted out the door, beer bottle in hand, carrying the bottle until drained, setting it empty, respectfully, on a curb, hoping one of the spectators would give it a proper recycling. At the next taverna, however, when I offered drachma in payment, the bartender pointed me toward one of the patrons sitting at a corner table. I looked; he waved. Seeing this crazy marathoner enter the taverna, drachma in hand, seeking fluids, the patron apparently had signaled the bartender that he would buy me a beer. My finishing time that day, not because of beer consumed or unconsumed, was 3:30e, still “estimated,” indicating again that Greek officials still had not quite determined how important precise times are to those running the marathon, original or not.

Thom Gilligan, owner of Marathon Tours & Travel, tells me that the organizational level of the Athens Marathon has improved greatly, spurred by the race over the classical course in the Olympic Games. Typical fields the last several years have ranged between 3,500 and 4,000 runners. This year, because of celebrations centered around the anniversary of the battle of Marathon, as many as 12,000 runners may participate, that being the cap as of this writing. (You may or may not still be able to enter.)

Thinking back to my three previous visits to Athens, I was tempted to run the full marathon in one final tracing of the footsteps of Pheidippides. But that would be my 112th marathon. Did I want to move off the magic number “111”? Fortunately, the organizers of this year’s race have offered runners out-and-back 5K and 10K races starting and finishing in Panathinaiko. “Once you make that turn,” Gilligan reminded me, “it’s downhill all the way.”

I will be there.