This week Eliud Kipchoge ran the first sub-two hour marathon. It wasn’t that easy the very first time….
The last of the Persians scrambled onto the last of their ships, the last anchor was raised, and the fleet fled.
The Battle of Marathon was over.
A cheer went up from the Athenian army, but not a great, triumphant roar, more a ragged, weary “yay”, the kind that comes from men who have been fighting for many hours, men who are not so much elated at having won as grateful at being alive.
Their commander, Militades, saw it differently. As commander he had been far from the fighting, doing the important stuff like supervising and delegating, and had been in no real danger, so his overriding concern had been about his career. So now that he had won, the sooner people found out the better.
He had a look around. A young soldier was sitting on a rock, head down. Militades walked over and stood in front of him, and the soldier’s head raised. Their eyes met, yet didn’t, because the stare of the young man went through Militades and far, far beyond him, as if seeking a place somewhere, anywhere, in the vast expanse of existence where his eyes could unsee the preceding hours.
Militades, to his surprise, found himself having to steel himself before going on.
“Soldier,” he said, “what is your name?”
“Pheidippides,” said the young man.
“Seriously?” said Militades. “Well, Pheidip- er, my good man, I have a mission for you.”
“It is a great and glorious mission,” said Militades. “I want you to tell the authorities in Athens about our victory -”
“Me, sir?” said Pheidippides. “If you wish, but I think it should be you who tells them, when you lead in our army or-” he looked around, “- what’s left of it, back into the city.”
“But we shall not return to Athens until tomorrow,” said Militades. “I want them to know now. The news will bring great joy, so should be conveyed as quickly as possible.”
So they can organise a hero’s welcome for you, thought Pheidippides. He looked around enviously at the other men, who were starting to break out the ouzo and restina, sighed internally, and got to his feet. “Very well, sir,” he said. “If I could have a horse -”
“We don’t have any,” said Militades.
“Wow,” said Pheidippides, “and I thought the Spartans had things, well, spartan. Well, in that case there’s no point,” he went on. “Even if I set out now, I won’t get there before night. The rulers will be asleep.”
“Not if you run,” said Militades.
“Run?” said Pheidippides. “It’s twenty-six miles.”
“No trouble to a fit young man like you,” said Militades, clapping him on the back. “It should only take a couple of hours.”
It took more than a couple of hours.
Pheidippides had just fought a long battle. He did not have pacemakers running alongside him. He did not have people regularly handing him cups of water. He was not running on tarmacked roads, nor in super-cushioned trainers. He was running across rugged, rock-strewn terrain. Wearing sandals.
It is true that people did cheer and whoop as he ran by, but that was only because, as was customary among runners at the time, he was naked.
But on and on he ran. First one sandal broke, then the other, forcing him to run barefoot, yet on and on he ran. The sun beat down continually upon him, yet still on and on he ran.
Then after twenty miles he hit the wall.
This was because he was by now running head down in exhaustion, and didn’t see it until he ran into it.
He climbed it, scraping both knees and a nipple, and solved the problem of getting down the other side by simply tumbling off onto the ground. He picked himself up, and on and on, again, he ran.
Hours later, many hours later, he arrived in Athens. He hailed a passer-by. “Where do the rulers meet?” he asked.
The passer-by pointed up at the Acropolis. “Up there,” he said.
“Of course they do,” muttered Pheidippides.
He climbed wearily to the top of the great hill. An attendant offered him a robe, or demisroussos, but he shrugged him off and lurched past him and into the courtyard of the philosopher rulers.
He stood, swaying and breathing heavily. Several of the philosophers glared at him.
“Hush!” whispered one. “Plato is speaking.”
“How can you know whether at this moment we are sleeping,” Plato was saying, “and all our thoughts are a dream, or whether we are awake and talking to one another in the waking state?”
You could try running full-belt into a stone wall, thought Pheidippides. He moved forward a few steps.
“Well I know that I am the wisest man alive,” replied Socrates, ignoring him, ” because I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
“μαλακίες,” thought Pheidippides. He plucked a Grecian urn from a plinth and dropped it onto the ground. Everyone turned in shock at the crash, then parted as he staggered to stand before them.
“Know this then,” he panted. “We’ve beaten the Persians.”
“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than who conquers his enemies -” began Aristotle.
“Oh, shut up,” said Pheidippides, falling forward onto his face.
The philosophers gathered anxiously around him. “You poor man,” said Homer. “Is there anything we can do for you?”
Pheidippides summoned all his will to lift his head one last time.
“Teach a pigeon or something to carry messages in future,” he said. “You can call it after yourself if you like.”