The year was 490 BC, the Greeks had defeated the Persians at the Marathon Battle and Pheidippides had the task to bring the good news to the city of Athens.
He ran about 35 km from Marathon to Athens and, when he arrived, Pheidippides just had the strength to say "we won", and fall down dead!
In fact there isn't any proof of this legend, but the story was good and inspired the competition that happened for the first time in the Athens 1896 Olympic Games.
The truth is that Pheidippides was in charge of an even more arduous and important mission. When the Persian army was coming to destroy Athens, Pheidippides had the task to go to Sparta, distant 240 km, and ask for their help… Running!
Yes, running! Since the path was too uneven for horses, just a runner emissary could cover the distance in time.
And then Pheidippides ran the 240 km in two days, just to arrive in Sparta and get a “No” as response. The Spartans were celebrating the Artemis festival and refused to help. And then Pheidippides had to come all the way back to Athens bringing the bad news, running.
Pheiddipides wasn’t the only serious runner among the Greeks and physical education was a key element in the army training. In fact, it was due to their running skills that the Athenians defeated the Persians. How?
The Persian’s plan was simple: land on Marathon plain, fight against the small Athenian army and then contour the seacoast and invade Athens by the unprotected south.
When Pheiddipides returned with the news that the Spartans wouldn’t help them, the Athenians army, consisted of 10,000 men, decided to do a fast attack against the 25,000 Persians that had landed on the Marathon plain.
The unexpected attack was successful and the Persians were expelled back to their ships. Then the second phase of the Persian plan began: navigate by 8-10 hours until the unprotected Phaleron beach.
It was this time that the Athenians had to use their running skills. After a battle that lasted a whole day, the Athenians still had to run 40 km until Phaleron beach to impede the Persian invasion.
In what could be considered the first marathon of the history, the first Athenians achieved Phaleron in about 5-6 hours and, about a hour before the Persians arrived there, all the Greeks were already on the beach ready for the battle. This running was crucial for the Athenians victory.
The Persians couldn’t believe in their eyes when, arriving at Phaleron, they saw the Athenian army! In the spite of their superior number of soldiers, the Persian were scared with the Athenians that seemed to be super-men. The Persian fleet navigated for more some days searching in vain for a safe harbor to land. Then the Persians decided to withdraw defeated.
Source: Michael Clarke text for Runner’s World English Edition, January 1999.