Who Ran The First Marathon Ever? Meet Pheidippides, The Legendary Greek Runner

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When you start training for your first marathon, many questions come to mind. 

There are questions about what type of training you’ll have to do and what kind of time commitment it will be. Then, there are normal questions of self-doubt, like whether or not you will be able to do the training, let alone run the marathon itself.

Many runners also start to wonder more about the origins of the marathon itself. Why is the marathon 26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometers? Who ran the first marathon ever?

In this article, we will introduce you to the very first marathon runner in history—Pheidippides.

As you become steeped into marathon training, you can think of the story of Pheidippides, and the deep roots of the marathon, drawing upon the fabled story of the first marathoner in history for strength and inspiration.

We will cover: 

  • Who Ran the First Marathon Ever?
  • Is the Story of Pheidippides True?
  • Who Was Pheidippides?

Let’s get started!

A drawing of Pheidippides, who ran the first marathon ever.
Flickr

Who Ran the First Marathon Ever?

According to historical accounts, the legend is that the first marathon runner ever was Pheidippides.

Let’s set the scene. As the myth goes, about 2500 years ago, in 490 BC, in the city of Marathon, Pheidippides is fabled to have witnessed one of the most significant battles of the classic world wherein the Persian Empire, under Darius I, deployed an “amphibious expeditionary” force to Greece.

The Persian fleet, manned by 18,000-25,000, hit the shore at the bay of Marathon, and although nearly the 10,000 Athenian army men were ready and waiting to fight tooth and nail to defend their land, the Athenians were still significantly outnumbered by the Persian invaders.

The Athenians called upon reinforcements from Sparta, but due to various logistical challenges like the incredible distance between Marathon and the Peloponnese, additional manpower never arrived, rendering the Athenian Greeks to have to face the attack on their own.

A greek solider.

Lo and behold, numbers don’t always determine the victor, as the outnumbered Athenians successfully drive the Persian offensive back into the sea, killing thousands and losing relatively few of their own.

Due to its location, what was aptly called the Battle of Marathon was a decisive victory for the Greeks.

Here’s where who ran the first marathon comes into play as Pheidippides enters the story.

Of course, in Ancient Greece, communication technology was primitive at best, and one of the primary ways of delivering any kind of message from one place to another was through the use of heralds, which were essentially professional couriers who can be likened to messengers or human carrier pigeons.

Pheidippides was one of these heralds. Also known as a hemerodrome, Pheidippides was basically paid to run from place to place to deliver messages.

Ancient Greek ruins.

According to the story, Pheidippides was summoned by the Athenian army to call for more reinforcements from Sparta, so he possibly was tasked with running all the way from Marathon to Sparta (153 miles over rough terrain, including at least one notable mountain).

He would have then had to run back to return to Athens to deliver the news that the Spartans weren’t going to come for one reason or another.

However, this Athens-to-Sparta run is omitted in the simplified version of the origins of the modern marathon.

Rather, the legend goes that after witnessing the surprising triumph of the vastly outnumbered Athenian soldiers, Pheidippides ran from the battle site in Marathon to the Acropolis in Athens to deliver the news.

Upon arriving at the Acropolis, Pheidippides is said to have uttered something like “chairete, nikomen (“hail, we are the winners”), or “Joy, we are winners,” and then immediately collapsed and died.

The distance from the battlefield in Marathon to the Acropolis in Athens, roughly 40 kilometers or 25 miles, was later converted to the modern marathon distance of 26.2 miles.

A map of Greece with a pinpoint on Sparta.

Is the Story of Pheidippides True?

Although the story of Pheidippides running the first marathon is a favorite of many runners and mythology lovers, in all likelihood, it’s just that: a myth.

There isn’t really any evidence documenting this fabled run. 

Moreover, even though it does seem like Pheidippides was a real man and indeed a courier, the rest of the details of running 26.2 miles and then collapsing and dying seem unlikely at best.

Some say the 306-mile distance is more likely (but who’s about to sign up for a 300-mile “marathon”?), and others say the whole Athenian army made the trek back as one.

Furthermore, the story of Pheidippides running the first marathon to deliver the news of the Greek victory is said to have been documented in the writings of Herodotus, a professional writer, and contemporary of Pheidippides.

A greek battlefield.

However, sources say this isn’t entirely accurate. While Pheidippides is briefly mentioned in the accounts of Herodotus, nothing is said of the Marathon-to-Athens run specifically.

According to Wikipedia, it wasn’t until 500 years later (around 100 AD), in the writings of Greek writer Plutarch, that the first known written account of any sort of Marathon-to-Athens run appeared.

However, Plutarch’s essay entitled “On the Glory of Athens” does not attribute the infamous first marathon runner designation to Philippides. So, according to Plutarch, who ran the first marathon? He names two potential names for the herald—Thersippus or Eukles—instead.

It wasn’t until yet another century later that a writer by the name of Lucian credited the Marathon herald as “Philippides.”

But, it’s hard to know how the story evolved and changed over those centuries without a true record or eyewitness account.

Although many people say that Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens—a distance of 26.2 miles—to deliver the news of the Greek victory, most say that this doesn’t really make sense in that it wasn’t all that urgent and probably wasn’t far enough to kill a rather fit and hale man promptly.

Ancient Greek ruins.

After all, even though some of us feel like we are dying in the last mile or so of a marathon, we are almost always far from true death, and as a professional herald, Pheidippides was accustomed to getting in some long runs.

Rather, it seems more likely that Pheidippides was actually used as a herald to run from Marathon—where the Persian Empire hit land to invade—all the way to Sparta in order to call upon the Spartan army reinforcements himself.

This distance is a whopping 153 miles, which Pheidippides is said to have probably needed to run twice: once there to request the help and once back.

Moreover, legend has it that he made it to Sparta in less than two days and then turned around and ran back just as fast, or faster.

After the 306-mile run, Pheidippides is said to have arrived back without the Spartans, but by the time he had made it back to Marathon, the Greeks came out victorious.

Then, upon seeing this triumphant upset, Pheidippides ran the additional distance to Athens—26.2 miles—where he finally came to his end from exhaustion.

A statue of a Greek soldier.

Interestingly, though we generally credit Pheidippides as the first marathon runner and run the modern marathon distance of 26.2 miles based on the myth of Pheidippides, there’s another modern race that’s also modeled after the legendary runs of Pheidippides. 

In the 1980s, a race known as the Spartathon was created by a group of British air force officers who sought to try and emulate the more historically-accurate run Pheidippides probably would have made between Athens and Sparta.

The Spartathlon route is about six times the length of a regular marathon because it replicates the roughly 150+ mile distance from Marathon to Sparta, including an ascent of Mount Parthenon.

If Pheidippides indeed ran between these two cities in order to call for reinforcements from the Spartan army, this would have been the distance—and a decent approximation of the route—that the first “marathon” runner took.

The modern Spartathlon has a current recourse record of 20 hours and 25 minutes, a time held by Yiannis Kouros.

A stamp with a runner on it that says Athens, Greece.

Who Was Pheidippides?

Although it’s hard to say with certainty that the story of Pheidippides is 100% true and that Pheidippides ran the first marathon, or the 26.2-mile distance we now have come to replicate as the modern marathon, most historians do believe Pheidippides was a real man.

Pheidippides is thought to have been born in approximately 530 BC in Ancient Greece.

Historical accounts also do seem to credit him as a hemerodrome, or courier, who would run to deliver messages from place to place.

So, whether or not Pheidippides ran 306 miles or 26.2 miles, or maybe both (332.2 miles) some 2,500 years or so ago isn’t certain. However, when we ask who ran the first marathon, we still credit this Greek citizen as the first marathon runner in history

Are you thinking of training for your first marathon to create your own piece of history, or have you already run one but would like to improve your time? We have training plans for all types of runners to help you through your first or next marathon. Check them out in our marathon training guides.

Marathon runners.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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