Since the Greeks first lit the Olympic torch, there has always been included in the sporting events at the Olympics a unique race known as the marathon. Most people know that the marathon is a test of endurance, but do you know how it got its beginning and why it is called the marathon?

The city of Athens, capital of Attica (Greece) in 490 B.C. and center of Greek culture, was about to be attacked on two sides by the powerful Persian army. The enemy, numbering nearly 20,000, lay in wait on the nearby plains of Marathon. The Greek forces consisted of about 11,000 men.

Miltiades, the Greek commanding general, gave orders to prepare for combat. His men, armed with spears, shields, helmets, and breastplates, were assembled in groups. Common military practice at the time would have been for these groups to advance in one slow, uniform line. Miltiades, however, was a military genius. Distributing his men over as much territory as possible so that they wouldn’t be outflanked, he ordered them forward on the run.

The Battle of Marathon was on!

The Persians, who were fighting with inferior weapons, were outmaneuvered and outfought. They lost 6,400 men—the Athenians, only 192—as they were driven back to the ships that had brought them.

A young Athenian soldier named Pheidippides had been sent earlier to Sparta, about 150 miles (241 kilometers) away, to ask for their help. Then he had raced back to Marathon. At the end of the battle, Miltiades, afraid that the people of Athens would surrender because they didn’t know of the victory at Marathon, asked Pheidippides to deliver a message to the people of Athens, 25 miles (40 kilometers) away.

Without the slightest hesitation, Pheidippides took the note and ran mile after mile, without slowing down or stopping to rest, toward Athens, where the citizens were gathered in the streets and at the marketplace, awaiting news of the battle at Marathon.

Pheidippides quickly made his way to the center of a crowd of Athenians and, raising his arms in triumph, delivered his message: “Rejoice, we conquer!” Then he sank to the ground, dead.

Young men and women still test their strength and endurance in the present-day Olympic marathon,* a fitting tribute to that battle-weary young Athenian who set a standard for endurance with his remarkable 25-mile run.

The apostle Paul knew all about the ancient Olympic contests and perhaps witnessed them. He compared the Christian life to the races that were run. (See 1 Cor. 9:24; Heb. 12:1.) Only one contestant can win the Olympic marathon. All of us, however, may win life’s marathon if we obey God’s rules as found in the scriptures.

Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh

Show References

  • Set at 26 miles, 385 yards (42,195 meters) in 1924 by the British Olympic Committee.