The first marathoner was Greek, and running was his day job. He was an Athenian hemerodrome, or “day runner,” some sort of very fit mailman. In the three days before to the run for which the marathon race was named, the “day runner” covered 240 kilometers on foot and then participated in a lengthy and gruesome battle with the invading Persians. That was in August or September 450 BCE. Even on a cloudy day the temperature would have reached the high twenties. Sweaty, exhausted, and probably covered with the humors of his vanquished foes, he ran another 40 or so kilometers from the battlefield at Marathon to the city of Athens to inform them of the victory. And he did it in sandals. Then again we don’t know what his time was.
Message delivered, the “day runner” immediately died. For obvious reasons, no one attempted such a run again for at least another 1500 years. In 1896 the French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games and included the 42.195-kilometer marathon as a major event. This he did on the recommendation of his friend, the grammarian Michel Breal. Neither fellow undertook to run it himself, of course. This was done by another Greek man, Charilaos Vasilakos, who ran it in three hours, eighteen minutes on March 22nd 1896.
We might well wonder, when not in the heat of battle, why would anyone push himself like that? Even Paul Revere took a horse. The question of why we run, have always run, is a mystery. Even Holden Caulfield, not known for healthy habits, breaks into a run at the end of Catcher in the Rye’s first chapter, for no reason, just to run. Perhaps why we run depends on from what or towards what we run. Coubertin himself put it tidily: “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Overwrought militarism aside, it’s a nice sentiment. The thrill of victory that motivated the day runner is perhaps the same drive that pushes modern marathoners. The struggles of modern life are so often a long game: a career, parenthood, political change. In the dawn light, the struggle is immediate: It’s between you and the pavement. It can be measured and contended with. A 10K in under an hour. That’s victory. The marathon in under four. That’s another. Even to get out there, in the cold morning air, running shoes laced in anticipation. Even if you don’t run, you’ve managed it, to get out there. That’s a victory too.