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Comment: A true marathon

By Praxity executive director Græme Gordon


Yesterday, as I write, I completed my last longest training run for the Verona Marathon in a few weeks. As I was doing those 18 miles (apart from the pain or maybe because of the pain) it reminded me of the last marathon I ran some four years ago, which was the ‘Original’ marathon. No, not Boston or the Baron de Coubertin race back at the first of the Modern Olympics. This was a run from the site of the battle at Marathon itself to the amphitheatre in Athens, over the ‘original’ course taken in 490BC.

I did indeed think then about myths and legends. Maybe the earliest version of what we now refer to as either ‘fake news’ or ‘alternative facts’, depending on the level of truth they contain.

The story ‘everyone knows’ about the original run is that a Greek named Philippides ran back from the battle to the senate of Athens – a distance of just over 40 km or 25 miles – to tell them of the Athenian army’s victory.  He then died after passing the message. The myth is that his last words with his dying breath were ‘Joy to you, we’ve won’ (in Ancient Greek, of course).

But this definitely falls into my definition of ‘alternative facts’.

It would appear that what actually happened was even more amazing.

It was not Philippides who ran back from Marathon, it was what remained of the Athenian army. Several hundred men in full armour. ‘But why?’ you may ask.

Well, having beaten the Persian foot soldiers at Marathon, the Athenian army commanders realised that the Persians had not deployed their two most deadly military weapons. The cavalry, of which the Athenians had none, and the newest ‘semi-secret’ weapons of composite bows and experienced archers, of whom the Athenians had heard but not yet experienced.

The Athenian generals realised that these ‘shock troops’ were on the galleys which had not landed them on the beach of Marathon, but were instead sailing for the port and area around Athens – where, if unopposed, they could take not only the city but also all the booty and slaves.  They quick-marched their army over the mountains back to Athens and got there before the galleys, thus saving the city from being sacked. I don’t know about you but that is, in my mind, an even greater feat.

Talking about greater feats, it appears there was a real long-distance runner called Philippides who was, at least partially, involved in the Battle of Marathon. However, instead of running a mere 25 miles, he is reported to have run all the way from Athens to Sparta to try to get support for the Athenian army from the men of Sparta. In the event they did not support Athens, as they had reportedly just started a three-day religious festival.

So, his run was all for naught. Except that instead of running 25 miles and keeling over when delivering his message, he reputedly ran over 130 miles to Sparta to deliver his message and get the negative reply before running a further 130 plus miles back. And as far as I can find, he lived to tell the tale.

Remember that, unless your source is unimpeachable, we are supposed to be ‘professional sceptics’ in our work. And also that, sometimes, fact-checking can unearth even more amazing ‘truths’ out of otherwise seemingly ‘alternative facts’. So, just because ‘everyone knows’ something is true, you don’t need to accept it as true. Prove it.

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