Birthplace of the Marathon

Birthplace of the Marathon

Talk about a race with some history to it.

John North of St. Joseph and Dennis Ohnstad of Urbana were running in the footsteps of Pheidippides when they did the Athens Classic Marathon on Oct. 31. The race celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon -- and the origin of the marathon race.

In the famous battle, a few thousand Athenian soldiers held off a much larger force of invading Persians on the plain of Marathon in 490 B.C. Legend has it that Pheidippides was dispatched to Athens to send word of the Greek victory. He ran about 25 miles, proclaimed victory -- and dropped dead.

You might wonder why people want to participate in marathons if the first marathon runner died at the end of the run. But much of the legend is inaccurate. Pheidippides probably ran 280 miles to Sparta and back over the course of a couple days, to see if the Spartans would help Athens in the battle. It’s unlikely that he ran from Marathon to Athens, then died at the end of the run. But the legend gave us the marathon race.

(Today’s standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles was adopted for the 1908 Olympics in London. It was the distance from the start at Windsor Castle to the finish in front of the Royal Box at the Olympic Stadium.)

About 12,500 runners lined up at the end of October to run roughly the same path Pheidippides took in the legend. Ohnstad heard about the race last spring, and he and North quickly decided they had to do it, because of the historical significance. Ohnstad called it the pinnacle of marathon experiences.

The two chose to go to Greece with a tour company, Apostolos Greek Tours of Boulder, Colo., which takes a group to the Athens marathon every year.

The tour group of 650 this year was at least four times the usual size of the marathon group, they said, and the overall number of runners for the marathon was triple what it is in other years.

They included many runners in costume, some dressed as Pheidippides. A member of North and Ohnstad’s tour group ran the race, for the ninth year in a row, dressed as an Athenian warrior, wearing 30 pounds of armor.

The runners in the tour group got a tour of the course and an idea what to expect from Jeff Galloway, a 1972 Olympian, writer and founder of a marathon training program, who is a regular part of the Athens marathon tour.

“There’s only one hill, but it’s 20 miles long,” Ohnstad said.

The race starts at the city of Marathon; circles the Tomb of Athenian Soldiers, a huge mound of earth where the remains of the 192 Athenians killed in the battle were buried; and finishes in Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, built for the first modern Olympics in 1896 and used for the finish of the 2004 Olympic marathon.

The runners with the tour group were told to prepare for the worst, given the much higher number of runners this year, North said. They were advised to carry their own water in case the aid stations ran out. North didn’t do so, and it turned out it wasn’t necessary.

“I’d say this was one of the best-supported marathons I’ve done so far,” North said.

The weather was ideal as well, with temperatures in the 40s at the start, 60s at the finish and perfectly blue skies. Early in the race, runners could look off to the left and see the Aegean Sea.

The spectators were a highlight for North.

“The crowd support was just phenomenal. There was 26 miles of people,” North said.

“All yelling ‘Bravo,’” Ohnstad added.

“And handing out olive branches to the runners,” North continued. “They were really enthusiastic to have you there.”

North said seeing the Olympic rings in the stadium at the end was awe-inspiring for him. As was seeing the ancient landmarks.

“We’re so used to being around history of 250 years ago. To be around things that date back to Christ was just incredible to me,” he said.

The Acropolis sits up above the stadium and runners could see it as they finished.

“You see that up on the hill and the sun was hitting it. It was almost golden. It was goose bump material,” Ohnstad said.

“This absolutely exceeded my expectations.”

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