As a reader of Herodotus and Thucydides I was looking forward to new insights on Greek history. This book brought a small dash of that and a whole lot of purple prose regarding running and the glories of the author’s Greek heritage.
The book centers around the accomplishments of Pheidippides, the renowned Greek herald who was central of the victory of the city states against the Persian invasion on the plains of Marathon. The Athenians, along with some smaller city-states, were facing overwhelming numbers of Persian soldiers, and more were heading by boat along the coast to raid Athens directly. The Greek victory is rightly considered one of the key events of European history. A victory by Persia might well have changed the complete character of Greece, robbed us of much of our intellectual and cultural heritage, and altered the world for centuries.
One of the key figures (from the author’s perspective THE key figure) was Pheidippides (some histories offer different names). Seeing the forces of Persia heading toward them someone had the sense to say “This looks like a job for Spartans,” a race that had one of the most bizarre cultures in history. Pheidippides ran the distance from Marathon, where the forces were gathering, to Sparta. Pheidippides ran the 152 miles (246 kilometers) from Marathon to Sparta. The Spartans replied they’d be happy to be there but needed to wait until the moon was full because the Spartans never did anything good or bad by half measures and that was their tradition. So Pheidippides, after running that distance in less than two days, turned around and ran back to give the reply to the Athenians. Note this was done without paved roads, quite possibly barefoot, over some of Europe’s crappiest terrain. It was pretty phenomenal, but then note that a few days later the entire Spartan army ran the same distance, in armor, to Marathon and then kicked ass in a battle.
I’m not a runner myself, so it was difficult for me to navigate what felt like filler (I should have noted that this was published by Rodale, a health/fitness publisher and not a general or educational publisher) as Karnazes discusses becoming a runner, being a runner, moving from marathons to ultra-marathons, and, finally, participating in a race that goes from Athens to Sparta that was started in 1982. Meanwhile he reunites with family, talks about the superior qualities of rural life in Greece, gets blisters, has visions from exhaustion, and makes the whole distance with what I guess were more water stations than Pheidippides had. I also felt it was cautionary that Pheidippides then participated in the battle at Marathon in which Persians with inferior armor were hacked to pieces. Then he ran to Athens the 20+ miles from Marathon to yell “Nike. Nike.” (Victory. Victory.) He then told that the Persian ships were heading their way and dropped dead, proving that anyone can run too much in certain situations
For a runner, either beginner or experienced athlete, this is probably a great and inspiring book. For a history nut it’s a little history packed into a very large book which makes a promise that “the full story” will be told here for the first time when there are truckloads of books on Greek history that tell this story more succinctly with better footnotes. As a sports book it’s above average. As a history book it ain’t. But it is what it is. Let your taste and needs decide.