Like a meteor shower, the London Marathon returns at the same time this year as last.

Or almost: in 2016 it was on Sunday April 24, in 2017, Sunday April 23; meteor showers and weekday-keyed events get slightly displaced by our 365- or 366-day calendar.

Shower meteors are swarms of particles rushing around orbits in space; the Marathon is a swarm of forty thousand human particles – wheelchair-riders, paralympics, female athletes, male athletes, “fun” runners – rushing or trotting around an orbit that is pretty complex.  They start from Greenwich; go east to Woolwich; come back by a different route to Greenwich; wind around the very building we live in, and around the Cutty Sark; go on west to London Bridge; back east along the other side of the Thames to Canary Wharf opposite to us; back west by the way they came, and on west to end at St. James’s Park in Westminster.

Since the start – or rather the several starts of the Red group, the Green group, the Wheelchairs, and the other categories – were to be on the Greenwich hill above us, I took my morning bicycle ride up there, to see the preparations if I could.  The streets all around, usually clogged with traffic, were empty of it; instead, all had become a maze of barriers, guarded by yellow-jacketed personnel.  Almost more impressive than the pluck of the runners who face up to this ordeal is the organizational effort that goes into it, over several days and over many miles, the deployment of several thousand police and many tons of steel hurdles.  The hurdles, linked along either side of the route, divide the world into non-communicating halves, not really north and south but left-of-Marathon and right-of-Marathon.  You can’t get from one to the other, without some dodges and wheedling.

I managed to get to the park and ride up the hill, alongside crowds of walkers who may have been intending runners; got some friendly advice from a yellowjacketed lady as to how impossibly crowded it would be up here near the time of the start (to be initiated by Princes William and Harry) and how it would be better to stay and watch from down where we live, as last year.  I wasn’t allowed back the way I had come, had to take roundabout streets, was lucky to get back through the maze of barriers to my door.

At 9:15 the first wheelchairs came shooting past at formidable speed.  At long intervals came bunches of formidable runners; two hours later, the street is still dense with runners and the sidewalks with cheering spectators.

This time we had our breakfast out in front

and again our next-door neighbor Joe was out with his ensemble of friends – percussion, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, lady vocalist, cornet, and himself on trombone – to keep the air warm with jazz.

One time I used a meteor shower (the Leonids) as a pretext to talk about Leonidas and the battle of Thermopylae.

We scarcely need a pretext to talk about Marathon.  Everyone knows – or perhaps doesn’t – why this race is called by this name.

Marathon and Thermopylae were the opening battles of the two Persian Wars, in 490 and 480 BC.  But Marathon was also the last battle of the first war, stopping the Persian invasion; whereas Thermopylae delayed but did not stop the second invasion, and it took more battles – Salamis, Plataea, and others – for the city-states of Greece to fend off subjugation by the vast Persian empire.

What happened in 490 was that the emperor Darius, who ruled the Persian empire at its height, sent his forces by sea to punish various Greeks who had been a nuisance.  The fleet sailed from Cyprus into the Aegean, pausing at Greek islands to besiege and enslave their cities, the last being Eretria on the long island of Euboea.  From there they turned south toward their main target, Athens, and a Greek collaborator guided them to a landing on the mainland at the bay of Marathon.

The place’s name is from the fennel plant (Greek marathos or marathôn).  There is a wide beach, with a plain, partly marshy, behind it, then the hills of Attica, the domain of Athens.  Landing there was quicker than going on around the cape of Sunion to Athens, but was perhaps a mistake.  The Athenians put Miltiades in charge of their citizen army.  He marched over the hills and blocked the two valleys that lead out of the plain of Marathon.  There was stalemate for five days.  Then the Persian commander decided to load his troops back into the ships, so as to sail around to Athens.  The cavalry, the strongest part of the force, was embarked first.  At this, Miltiades charged.  The Athenian soldiers were hoplites, which means that they bore heavy hopla, “weapons,” but it can’t help suggesting to us that they “hopped lightly”; they probably marched until they were in range of arrows, then ran.  Their line had to stretch sideways so as not to be outflanked by the enemy, who still greatly outnumbered them.  The Athenian center was thinned, so that the enemy center was lured forward; the stronger wings demolished the Persians’ weak wings and then rolled up and surrounded the center.  The Persian army – or rather armies, drawn from the empire’s many nations – panicked, many got stuck in the marshes, and as many got on board the ships as could.  The Athenians counted 6,400 enemy bodies; their own dead were 192, who were buried in a mound, tymbos, still to be seen.  The Athenians had proved that mighty Persia was not invincible, which had large consequences to come.  They marched quickly back overland to orevent a landing at Athens; the Persian fleet gave up and sailed home.

And where did the runner come in?

The source for the Persian Wars is the multivolume work written by Herodotus, first of historians.  He says that before the battle a hêmerodromos, “day-runner” or courier, Philippides, was sent to seek the help of Greece’s other strong state, Sparta (politically very different from Athens, and later to be its deadly enemy).  He got there on the second day, presumably running much or all of the distance: about 150 miles.  The Spartans saw the need for action against the common threat; but they were superstitious, it was the ninth day of the lunar month, they could not set off till the Full Moon.  Philippides returned – whether running, is not clear – with this disappointing news.

A sub-plot is that Philippides on his way, on a mountain near Tegea, met the god Pan, who asked why the Athenians had ceased to worship him.  So the Athenians renewed their respects to Pan, who is able by horrific shouts to arouse panic in the enemy.

Herodotus wrote some decades after the events he described, but he used eyewitness reports.  Other authors, centuries later, Lucian and Plutarch, introduced a variant: Philippides, or Pheidippides, ran from the battle of Marathon back to Athens, 26 miles, to bring the news.  He came to the archons, the “rulers” of Athens, exclaimed “Khairete, nikômen! – Rejoice, we have won!” and died.

The name Philippos means “horse-lover”; Philippides is the son of Philip; Pheidippides would mean “son of the horse-sparer” and is the name of the spendthrift son in the Clouds, one of the comic plays by Aristophanes.  I’m afraid the story of the heroic-tragic runner from Marathon to Athens looks like a late embellishment on the real story of the courier to Sparta.

However, when the modern Olympic Games started in 1896, they included, at the suggestion of Michel Bréal, the race that commemorates the Marathon-to-Athens run.  Those first modern Olympics were held in Athens and, to the jubilation of Greeks, the marathon was won by a water-carrier named Spyridon Louis.

And there is now also a Spartathlon, modeled on the 150-mile run to Sparta.

I’ve finished this Marathon story in a sprint, to get it out on April 23, relying on memory and not giving myself time to check many points I’d have liked to check; I may do that and update later.


2 thoughts on “Marathonids”

  1. It’s an interesting coincidence that you finished this essay in a sprint, for if the famous battle had been fought in the nearby village of Sprint, it would be much easier to organize the commemorative races.

    And if the runners are like meteoroids, are they constantly running a very long route that only passes through London once a year?

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