Pheidi and the first triathlon

Bust of Herodotus

Image via Wikipedia

You’ve heard about Pheidippides, who in the popularized version of the story ran from Marathon to Athens and dropped dead after announcing that the Athenians had gotten their butts kicked in the first-ever Olympic Games.

It’s true that he exclaimed, “Νενικήκαμεν” (“No gold!”) before keeling over.

Through countless retellings since ancient times, however, the story of the first two legs of his incredible journey have largely been forgotten.

Pheidi, as his close friends were said to have called him, actually swam nearly two and a half miles – buck nekkid, as was the custom – from the Olympic Village, across the Bay of Marathon to the town of Athlon. Cold, tired and all wrinkly, he wisely concluded that he would not be able to swim another 138+ miles.

“Eνικήκαμεν,” he told a bystander in an account recorded by Herodotus, the historian. Loose translation: “They really ought to allow wetsuits when it’s this freaking cold.”

Athlon, as luck would have it, was the birthplace of the first “ποδήλατο” or “inline, two-wheeled, horseless chariot.” Its inventor, the clever Hermes, came upon the naked, shivering Pheidippides at the water’s edge.

“Tri this, Pheidi,” he said. “It’s all downhill from here to Athens.”

“Nμετρικά?” Pheidi is said to have asked.

“This? It’s an inline, two-wheeled, horseless chariot,” the clever Hermes answered. “I’m thinking I might call it a ποδήλατο.”

“Clever,” Pheidi said. Still nekkid, he climbed on.

Herodotus described the ensuing historic ride:

“The clever Hermes had lied, of course. The way was not all downhill. Indeed, it was ‘φοινικήια γράμματα ελληνικά μετρικά συστήματα.’ It is remarkable that Pheidi was able to travel 840.5 stadia on that damn thing – a fixie! – and then run another 195, give or take. Believe you me, the vultures of Vlachava were watching closely as he climbed through the Antichasia.”

Pheidippides had to run the last leg of the journey after flatting for a second time and discovering he had left his frame pump some 47.5 stadia back up in the mountains. Ironically, he might not have died of exhaustion had he risked taking the less scenic but more direct route from Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 25 miles.

True story of cycling in Greece.

© 2009

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