Marathon Men and the Limitless Human Potential

Lunge after lunge across the empty parking lot. The world’s best training partner, my 4-year-old Australian cattle dog, looked up at me. I’m certain he was laughing at the fact I do not have boundless energy like him.

As I finished my 10th round of sprints, parking lot lunges, push-ups, and pull-ups, I thought back on the origins of my next challenge, the marathon length Spartan Ultra race.

I thought about the origins of the marathon and how the messenger Pheidippides crossed daunting terrain in his 22-mile trek to announce the Athenian victory against the vast Persian army after having ran well over two hundred miles before hand.

I thought about the Athenians and how they mastered their fear while marching toward certain death.

Spartan Ultra Race — Image courtesy of spartan.com

The Road to War: Face Your Challenge No Matter the Odds

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the estimated 25,000–60,000 Persians planned to meet the Athenians at Marathon north of Athens, promptly destroy them, then sail to invade the unprotected city-state from the south.

The Athenians, only 11,000 strong, marched to face the Persian army and to what must have felt like the end, blocking the road to Athens. They were in desperate need of help.

The Athenian commanders sent their messenger Pheidippides to Sparta, 142 miles away to beg for assistance. The road to Sparta was too dangerous to use a horse. Pheidippides would have to traverse the rocky hills of Greece on foot.

Upon reaching Sparta, Pheidippides found the Spartans unwilling to take up arms in defense of the Athenians. At least not right away…

The Spartans were in the middle of a religious celebration and would not cease their festivities for another few days. Not even to counter the quickly encroaching Persian forces. A few days delay meant a 1–2-week arrival. And surely the Athenians would be mere memories by that point.

Pheidippides had to return as fast as possible to tell his commanders help would not be coming. So, he ran another 142 miles back to Athens.

Statue of Pheidippides

The Road Home: Do What Must be Done

The Athenians were on their own. And perhaps this knowledge influenced their strategy. They charged at the Persians, taking them by surprise. With stunning force they routed the Persian army while flanking them on both sides. The Persians retreated to their ships where the battle continued. The Persians reportedly lost 6,500 troops while the Athenians only suffered the loss of 200. The underdogs had taken a stand. The Persians hurried to set sail to the south. They would still continue with their plan to invade the now unguarded gates of Athens.

Pheidippides, who had run to the battlefield at Marathon, ran back to Athens to announce the victory that just took place, warning of the impending Persian strike from the south. Not far behind were the Athenian warriors. Those who had only moments ago finished one battle, packed their supplies and weapons and ran back to Athens to meet the Persians once again on the field of battle.

When the ships arrived, the Persian forces must have stared on in disbelief. How could the foe that just instigated their retreat already be waiting for them? Surely their ships were faster than the feet of these mortal men. But the Athenians appeared before them as gods descended upon the Earth as they took up arms once more against the invading army. The Persians, unable to secure a landing of their vessels, departed for the safer shores of Asia.

Pheidippides and the men of marathon brought great honor to the city of Athens. Their efforts remain immortalized in the race we call out of respect for the Athenians and their endurance, a marathon.

Acropolis of Athens

The Road to Eternity: Heroes Get Remembered, but Legends Never Die

The legend of Pheidippides’ treks gave rise to the belief that man is capable of immeasurable endurance. Today, the 153-mile Spartathalon race commemorates Pheidippides’ feat, with hundreds of endurance athletes participating every year.

Pheidippides did for endurance running what Roger Bannister did for the 4-minute mile. His legend made something that seemed impossible, a reality.

We have yet to find a true limit to man’s endurance — this is why we’ve since expanded on the marathon and our conventional understanding of what the human body and as any great endurance athlete will tell you, the mind, can endure.

Endurance sports continue to grow in appeal throughout the world. It is not enough to run in a straight line on a perfectly flat surface for 26 miles. No, in true human spirit, our races are longer, more grueling, more time consuming, and more difficult than ever before. 100-mile races are old hat. Racers now trek through intense conditions for 150, 200, or 250 miles. That is a long time to suppress the same nagging voice begging you to quit. It takes great mental fortitude to overcome the pain, fatigue, and misery one withstands during endurance events.

The Moab240 Race — 240 miles across grueling desert terrain — Image courtesy of http://www.moab200.com/

Yet we continue to sign up in droves.

Why?

Endurance races are a real-world manifestation of the road of trials. The marathon itself, a metaphor for the marathon of life. And maybe, the process of grueling preparation to cross the line at the end of the road gives those who attempt it a feeling. A feeling that if only for a moment, life, like the marathon, is conquerable.

Nike! Nike!

Pheidippides famously announced after reaching Athens, proclaiming victory. And that was all he said. And perhaps that is all he needed to say. As legend has it Pheidippides collapsed dead upon uttering these words. His final trek, complete. Victorious.