In 490BC, The Greek city states were hard at war with the almighty Persian Empire. One well-known battle (out of many) is the Battle of Marathon, fought between about 10,000 Athenian soldiers (with some Plataean reinforcements) versus 26,000 Persian soldiers. Despite the Persians having superior numbers and cavalry, the battle concluded with a decisive victory to Athens thanks to a well-implemented flanking strategy and the temporary absence of the Persian cavalry at the base camp. The battle was a turning point in the First Greco-Persian War and the crushing defeat drove the Persian invasion force off Greek lands for ten years.
The popular story goes that a runner named Pheidippides was sent from Marathon to Athens after the battle to bring the good news, as the people of Athens were still gripped in fear that the Persians would directly strike the city soon. It is said that Pheidippides ran a distance of about 40 kilometres back to Athens and on arrival cried out “We have won!”, then collapsed and died from exhaustion.
When the modern Olympics was being designed at the late 19th century, the organisers decided to use this story to inspire what we now call the marathon – a 42.195km endurance run. The story was to recall the glory of ancient Greece and the heroic act of Pheidippides (also referred as Philippides in some texts).
Unfortunately, the story is a romantic amalgamation of two separate stories. But then again, the actual story is just as incredible.
Despite the decisive Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon, the war still raged on and the Persians changed directions and headed for Athens instead. The Athenian army marched swiftly back home to pre-empt the Persian landing force. They marched 40km within a day – an amazing feat considering the fact that they just fought a massive battle and were armoured from head to toe.
The runner, Pheidippides, actually ran a distance of 225 kilometres from Athens to Sparta seeking reinforcements before the Persian army landed in Marathon (i.e. before the Battle of Marathon). He then ran back to Athens, meaning he ran roughly 450~500km within a few days. There is not much historical evidence of whether he actually ran this far in such short time but there are some anecdotal recordings.
The world record for the fastest marathon is 2 hours 3 minutes 23 seconds (as of 2014) by Wilson Kipsang of Kenya. The world record for the longest marathon ever run is set by Shiso Kanakuri, who started the marathon on July 14, 1912, during which collapsed from heat exhaustion around the 27km mark. He had to withdraw from the race, but could not bear with his “failure” all throughout his life. In 1967, he challenged himself again at the age of 75 to finish the remaining 15km, eventually setting the record time for the longest marathon ever run – 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds.