Pheidippides, the Greek courier who ran the first marathon 2500 years ago, died of a heart attack, 19th century English poet Robert Browning wrote.
In his poem, Pheidippides, Browning refers to the ecstasy and agony of the runner carrying to Athens news of the Greeks' victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. He writes, "Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died - the bliss!"
Pheidippides was a professional foot courier. He may have been the man who a few days before the battle ran 240 kilometres in 48 hours to seek help from the Spartans.
It is almost certain a heart attack didn't kill him. Dr Jenni Saunders, a sports medicine specialist with the Australian Olympic team in Athens, said: "The chances of a fit runner having a congenital defect which comes up under stress is one in 100,000. It would have surfaced earlier. I think Pheidippides died of sunstroke."
The battle of Marathon, 490BC, occurred in September when Athens experiences scorchers. It lasted only from breakfast to lunchtime when a Persian army of 30,000 lost 6400, while the Athenians suffered just 192 casualties according to Herodotus, the Greek historian with a reputation for exaggeration. Pheidippides would not have had time to carbohydrate load before he set off for Athens 40 kilometres away with his message of victory, "Be joyful, we win."
Nor would he have had any drink stations along the way. There are few streams in this Attic inferno. In fact, the only advantage Pheidippides enjoyed over today's marathoners was the shade. In the fifth century BC, the terrain between Marathon and Athens was wooded, whereas today it is barren and treeless.
Pheidippides would not have had lightweight shorts, running shoes which weigh as much as airplane slippers, shirts with more air holes than fibre or sunglasses. In fact he may have run nude and shoeless. As a professional soldier, he may have been forced to wear leather thongs.
"I'd hate to treat his blisters afterwards," Saunders said.
Pheidippides would also have run along a stone-studded path. The runners in last Sunday's womens' marathon and the men's this Sunday will run on a smooth bitumen highway. It is a fallacy that it is less tiring running on soft surfaces, even grass, compared to pavement.
Nor would Pheidippides have had the benefit of distance training. The longest race in the Olympics at the time was 4614 metres.
Modern marathoners rarely run more than half marathons in training and combine easy runs with speed work.
Saunders said: "He wouldn't have had the benefit of the knowledge of today's exercise physiologists."
Although it is almost heretical to suggest it in Athens, Pheidippides may not have existed. Herodotus did not mention him and the Battle of Marathon was important enough for Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy, to record it. The first mention of Pheidippides is from Plutarch in the first century AD.
The other nagging aspect of the story is why he ran so fast, without water and stops, in blazing temperature, simply to report a victory. Unless it was to warn the Athenians that the Persians, who took to their ships, may attack the city by sea. [more]