You probably know something about the story of Pheidippides, even if you’ve never heard his name in your life. About 2500 years ago, on the north coast of Attica, Pheidippides is said to have witnessed one of the best-known battles of the classical world. The Persian Empire, seeking to punish Athens for some outrageously cheeky behavior in Asia Minor, despatched an amphibious expeditionary force to Greece, first taking Eretria on the island of Euboea and then making their way southward toward Athenian territory.
The Persian fleet landed at the bay of Marathon, where they found the exits blocked off by a 10,000-strong Athenian army. The Athenians were outnumbered two or three to one, so the sensible thing to do was to hunker down and wait for reinforcements, which were supposed to be on their way from Sparta. Some combination of circumstances — tactical considerations, the distance between Marathon and the Peloponnese, typical Lacedaemonian wankery — meant that those reinforcements never arrived, and Athens faced the invasion almost wholly alone.
It worked out for them: the phalanx drove the invaders back into the sea, inflicting massive casualties for minimal loss. The Battle of Marathon was a decisive victory, deflecting the might of the Persian Empire away from Greece for a decade, and while they’d be back under Xerxes to, among other things, give the Spartans a bad time at Thermopylae*, fending them off for a decade gave the Hellenes just about enough time to prepare for round two.
*Don’t believe the propaganda, by the way: the action at the Hot Gates was a terrible tactical and strategic defeat for Leonidas, who was definitely not fighting a mere delaying action (and also he ended up dead, which sucked for him).
So where does our hero come in? Communications technology in ancient Greece was not especially advanced, so to get information from place to place, runners were employed. Pheidippides was one such runner, and according to legend, as soon as Athens had won the day at Marathon, he absolutely booked it back home, bringing the relieved citizens news of victory before dying of his exertions. His one-man race was Michel Bréal’s inspiration for the modern, less-deadly, marathon.
The only problem with Pheidippides’s story is that it’s absolute bollocks. Not only was Pheidippides’s news not urgent enough for kill oneself for, the only reasonably-contemporary source we have on the Battle of Marathon is Herodotus, and he makes no mention of a herald racing back to Athens. Instead, it’s the entire Athenian army which makes the trek. Since the Persian fleet was still just about intact and could, in theory, sail right around the Attic Peninsula to launch an attack on Athens itself, they had to move as quickly as possible. With the whole army moving at speed, no herald was required.
Pheidippides does appear in Herodotus, where he is being used rather more sensibly: as Athens’s messenger to Sparta requesting reinforcements as the Persians attacked. He made the 155 mile-journey between cities in less than two days, but the Spartans were too busy washing their hair (or whatever Spartans did, who cares) to move for several more days, and by the time they bothered, the battle had already been won. Not all of Herodotus is believable, but Athens sending an urgent message to a wartime ally makes rather a lot more sense than the better-remembered version.
The first mention of a Marathon-to-Athens dash comes from Plutarch, who was writing more than half a millennium after the battle and had the annoying habit of being sort of full of shit. From there, the Pheidippides legend got somewhat out of hand, ultimately infiltrating European culture to the extent that we now have a whole category of race named after something that never actually happened.
The marathon, however, isn’t the only modern race that owes its existence to Pheidippides. In the 1980s, a group of British air force officers decided to try the more historically-accurate run between Athens and Sparta, creating the Spartathlon. At about six times the length of a ‘real’ marathon and including an ascent of Mount Parthenion, the Spartathlon is a ferociously difficult race, but it is doable in the time said to have been achieved by Pheidippides. The current record, held by Yiannis Kouros, stands at 20 hours, 25 minutes.