Boston Globe: Marathon enthusiasts going back to its roots
January 10, 2010
By Megan McKee, The Boston Globe
If you say the word “marathon’’ around here, chances are people think of the Boston Marathon, and for good reason. It’s the oldest annual marathon in existence, having made its debut in 1897, a year after the race was established as an Olympic sport. It’s the one that stands at the pinnacle of runners’ goals and daydreams.
But to find the true meaning of marathon, you have to reach into the recesses of ancient history. Twenty-five hundred years, to be exact. It is from the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC that the legend derives of a messenger running the long distance to Athens to tell his countrymen of their marvelous victory – before dying of exhaustion.
“Look, if there was no battle, there’d be no marathon,’’ said Tim Kilduff, who was the Boston Marathon race director in 1983 and 1984.
And so Kilduff is coordinating with the mayor of Marathon, Greece, and the son of Stylianos Kyriakides, one of the most unlikely victors in the Boston Marathon’s history, on a world wide celebration of the battle’s 2,500th anniversary.
“I have some understanding of how marathons are run and what it takes to run one,’’ said Kilduff, who has forged a close relationship with the mayor and his wife and, in the process, facilitated a sister-city relationship between Hopkinton and Marathon. “But it wasn’t until I was on the ground in Marathon, Greece, that I got the emotional connection.’’
To Kilduff, founder of the Hopkinton Athletic Association, the battle’s anniversary represents not only the chance to celebrate the origins of marathoning, but also an opportunity to draw attention to both Hopkinton and the Boston Marathon because of their pivotal roles in the sport’s development. “It brings worldwide recognition,’’ said Kilduff.
“We’re very excited about it,’’ said Guy Morse, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon. “It’s one of those milestones that’s really unparalleled in terms of prestige and importance. The marathon has such a rich history and to be able to be a part of that birthday celebration is something unique.’’
In November, Kilduff traveled to Greece and met with race directors of more than 50 marathons. He is now reaching out to race directors in North America to invite them to participate in the celebration, and is planning a panoply of events in connection with this year’s Boston Marathon. The list includes a gala celebrating the battle’s anniversary, an exhibit at the John Hancock Sports & Fitness Expo, and hosting 70 Greek runners.
He’s getting help from a Greek consulate general and from state Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat who has been to Marathon, Greece, and is a longtime supporter of the Boston race.
“Right now we are a global society. It’s really great that there’s such closeness between countries and people, and it stems from the Marathon,’’ said Spilka. The goal, she said, is to “heighten people’s awareness of what this all means and how wonderful and important it is, not only because of the anniversary, but Hopkinton and the Marathon.’’
In 490 BC, the Persians landed on the shores of Greece, secure in their position as a virtually unstoppable military force. But their padded suits, wicker shields, and main weapon of choice, arrows, were no match for the Greeks, who met the Persians wielding spears and clad in bronze armor.
Though the Greeks were vastly outnumbered – 10,000 against an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 – they won a crushing victory.
“Everything we take for granted of what Western civilization looks like rested on the shoulders of tiny Athens in 490 BC,’’ said Jim Lacey, a military historian whose book about the battle, titled “The First Clash,’’ will be released in 2011. “If the Persians had won, they would have conquered every other city-state of Greece.’’
The story of what may or may not have happened after the battle – historians have never proven it and the account comes from someone who lived centuries after the Battle of Marathon – is what inspired the first marathon race in 1896 at the Olympics in Greece.
According to the story, the Greek messenger Phidippides ran to Athens to announce the Greek victory. Lacey said that even if Phidippides was not the messenger, someone would have made the run. “The people of Athens were deciding whether to abandon their homes and take cover . . . they needed to know the outcome of the battle as soon as possible,’’ said Lacey.
The idea of Phidippides’s journey, whether real or not, was powerful enough to inspire the Greeks to create an event based on and named after the 25-mile route from the battlefield in Marathon to Athens.
At those Olympic games in 1896 were representatives from the Boston Athletic Association, and a year later, the Boston Marathon kicked off its first race, starting in Hopkinton.
This year, the world is remembering the battle.
On Jan. 2, marathoners halfway around the world competed in the China’s Xiamen International Marathon. Attending the event were Marathon’s mayor, Spyros Zagaris, and Dimitri Kyriakides, son of Stylianos, to promote the anniversary.
“The word ‘Boston’ for me was embedded in my mind,’’ said Kyriakides. He was born in 1944, a year and a half before his father traveled from Greece to Boston to run the 1946 Marathon. Stylianos Kyriakides, a former Olympian who had been emaciated due to lack of food under the Nazi occupation, hadn’t run for six years when he arrived in Boston.
A doctor advised him not to run, fearing he would die if he did. Kyriakides ignored the advice, won the race, and campaigned for worldwide attention and humanitarian aid to alleviate the suffering of his countrymen in Greece under the Nazi regime.
Dimitri Kyriakides remembers helping set up water stands and measuring the course for the Athens Classic Marathon, which his father organized for 32 years after returning to Greece. Dimitri believes that marathoners share common interests that can be harnessed to promote good will.
“The message,’’ he said of the marathon’s celebration, “is peace, brotherhood, and fair competition.’’ He, Kilduff, and Zagaris hope to create a network of marathoners and race directors that will last long after 2010 ends.
Meanwhile, in Marathon, Greece, the mayor and his wife, Dina Zagaris, have been gathering support from the Greek government, which is starting to promote the battle’s anniversary at the federal level. The attention will be a boon to Marathon, which will host a series of celebratory programs that will culminate on Oct. 31 with the Athens Classic Marathon, which traces Phidippides’ route. So far, 20,000 people have signed up to run, twice as many as last year.
Kilduff predicts this year will be huge for marathoning, and by extension, Hopkinton. All of it, he said, hinges on the Battle of Marathon.
“Sports and sporting events are plentiful,’’ said Kilduff. “There is only one, however, that can be traced back to a significant and specific date in history like the marathon can.’’
(Megan McKee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)