Richard Halliburton’s Drunken Marathon

Okay, so this is kind of cheating, but instead of sharing one of my stories this week, I’m going to share one of Richard’s.  While at Marathon last week, I sat in the shade of a cypress tree and read Richard’s chapter about running from Marathon to Athens in the footsteps of Pheidippides.  I had forgotten how much I love that chapter!  Many of my readers have never read Richard Halliburton’s books, but hopefully this will whet some appetites.   This excerpt is from The Glorious Adventure, his 1925 trip to retrace the events of Homer’s “Odyssey”.  I have cut out some passages in an effort to keep it at an easily readable length.  He begins by explaining the history of Marathon to his travel companion, Roderic.  Enjoy!



…”If you had spent your time in college reading the classics, as I did, instead of wasting it on those depressing engineering books, you’d know that Pheidippides was the fastest runner of ancient Athens…Of course Pheidippides gave his services to the army when the Persians set upon Greece in 490 B. C. The invaders landed at Marathon, only nineteen miles from Athens.

“The Persians had a quarter of a million soldiers and the Athenians only ten thousand. One good Athenian was equal to about ten anybody else, so that made it nearly even. The  gods fired the Greeks with a valor of desperation that sent the quarter-million invaders flying for their boats.”

“Do you expect me to believe that?”

“Well, if you don’t believe my story it only proves what I have always said,–that you have absolutely no imagination. The handful of Athenians did defeat the Persians, and civilization was saved, whether you approve or not. The instant the invaders broke for their ships a young Greek soldier was seen to throw down his armor and run rapidly toward the mountain pass. It was Pheidippides. Athens must know. Twenty-six miles to the city it was by the seacoast route,-nineteen over the mountains. He chose the shorter harder way.

“In Athens a tense and ominous quiet had pre­vailed all day. Early  that morning a neglected crippled youth had climbed laboriously to the Acropolis and posted himself
on the highest stone he could find facing toward Mara­thon.  He saw it first,–a small cloud of dust rising from a tiny speck moving toward Athens.  A  runner! A runner!  Crowds began to stream out along the road to meet the mes­senger.  He came on, black with sweat and dust. He reached the Rue de Kephisia and, followed by a swarm of people, plunged
on to the market-place.  He was reeling.  A hundred hands stretched forth to catch him. Pheidippides had reached his goal.

‘Victory,’ he gasped out, and bit the dust quite dead.­”

Two thousand four hundred and five years after the death of Pheidippides, I stood on the Marathon mound, with the mountains before me at the foot of which the Athenian army had camped, and, behind, the shore where the Persian fleet was drawn.  I was alone, for Roderic, despite my eloquent story, had not been thrilled sufficiently to make the trip.

Remaining behind, he proceeded to make all his plans for my birthday luncheon the following noon, and since I wasn’t going to be there anyway, invited a lot of people I didn’t know and several others I didn’t like. He escorted me to the motor-bus and requested that if I was determined to imitate Phei­dippides, would I please omit the part where he falls dead,–it would be very discommoding to be left alone at this stage of our expedition.

On arrival at the village of Marathon at sundown, I could find no other sleeping quarters save on top the one table the one “restaurant” in the community boasted. However, my travel style on this occasion was in keeping with the accommodations, for I had left behind in Athens hat, coat, cane,-even my tooth­brush.  Anticipating the nineteen-mile run next day in midsummer heat I should also have left shirt and trousers had I not feared that perverse and narrow­ minded convention would have me seized as a lunatic if I were caught galloping about Attica without them.

At dawn, well provisioned for my solitary Mara­thon, I left the village, and tramped the three miles to the twenty-four-hundred-year-old battle-field mound  raised  by  the  victorious  Athenians  in  the center of the plain.  It was here  that  runners  from fifteen  nations  gathered  in 1896  when  the  classic Olympic  games  were  first  revived,  and  raced  to Athens by the longer route  (the mountain trail used by Pheidippides being entirely impractical as a race course ).  To the sincere delight of every true athlete in the world, the event was won, properly, by a Greek.

Climbing to the fifty-foot summit of this hillock, I took a sweeping look around at sea and sky and mountain, “got set”-“on my mark”-and “went,” just as my wrist watch struck six.

Before trotting a quarter-mile I began to have a vague suspicion that I was no Pheidippides. At Princeton with the New Jersey winter weather at zero, a five-mile jog over the frozen hills about Lake Carnegie had been fine sport. But several years had passed since then, and with them all my claims to kinship with the antelope.

Oh well, there was no hurry. I wasn’t bearing tidings to a palpitating Athens that the Persians had been pushed off the front porch. The only things that awaited me were blistered heels and a suspicious scrutiny from the police, and neither of these in­centives was worth running myself to death for like Pheidippides.

Along with the lack of a trousers-problem, Pheidippides had a big advantage over me in that this mountain path in  his  day  was  a  principal  route to Athens from Marathon, and in consequence well enough marked  for ten  thousand  Athenian  soldiers to march along it. I’d like to see them try it now. With the era of wheeled vehicles, the longer sea level route gained preference and the once proud mountain road was  abandoned  to the  forest  and the  stream.

This being the case, one of the ten good reasons I didn’t break any records on my Marathon was because so much time was lost looking for the elusive wisp of a path, which had a way of  disappearing beneath a rock or up a tree as fast as I found it again.

I was re­solved to “tell Athens,” though just what it was was going to tell Athens, I’d not decided. However, after six or seven miles of sun and sticks and stones, faintness from lack of fuel began to discomfort me. So, on reaching the summit of the divide, I sat down in the shade to recover my breath. Disinterring a loaf of bread and a package of cheese I decided to postpone telling Athens till I’d had a rest and a meal. If Pheidippides had done likewise he might have lived to run another day.

By the time had reached a point ten miles from the Marathon mound where the country had become fairly well settled, a tormenting thirst had seized me with such violence that I decided to sacrifice Athens and everybody in it to the Persians for one drink of water.  A small refreshment shop in a hamlet I ran through offered itself and I leaped upon it.

There wasn’t any water. Because of the prolonged drought every spring in the neighborhood had dried up. One of the shop attendants had gone to a reservoir some distance away to bring back a supply.

He wouldn’t  return for half  an hour; there was wine.

I had the proprietor hurriedly open his nearest decanter. It was vile, but of all the drinks I’ve drunk (in the words of Gunga Din) I’m gratefulest to one from this Greek bartender. Glass after glass was emptied. In fact, so much wine disappeared that when I sought the road again it reeled about in the most amazing manner. I had to hold tight to keep from being thrown by it.  Running was too redic’lous.

I felt so jolly, just rolling along and stopping to tell everybody in English that everyshing was all right, since the Pershuns were in wild flight. They seemed delighted to hear the good news.  I wanted to tarry and tell them all about the fight, but Ashens mush know; so I tripped blithely on, around the end of Mount Pentelicus, and there-stretching out toward the sea and wrapped in purple summer haze, the plains of Attica stood first on one end and then on the other,–Attica, safe from the Persian sword and firebrand.  Wheeeee!!!

At Kephisia, twelve miles from Marathon and seven from the Acropolis, my enthusiasm to tell Ashens became so strong hailed a taxicab, broke the glad tidings to the chauffeur and jumped in, beseeching him to hurry. Though it didn’t seem to penetrate his brain at first how vital my mission was, presently he understood and entirely agreed with me that Athens should know.

As we rattled swiftly toward the city I pictured its tense and ominous quiet, and the  cripple boy  on the Acropolis lookout.  Now as we entered the suburb, perhaps he had seen us and was shouting, “A taxi-cab! A taxi-cab!”  There was so much dust I couldn’t see the crowds of people that were no doubt following me to hear my message.  The chauffeur and I spent half an hour looking for the market-place, where I was to tell ’em and fall dead, but much to my disgust I finally learned there wasn‘t any.   Oh, well, I could tell Roderic, anyway. The taxi drove up to our hotel. Roderic was there in the dining-room holding forth as host for my birthday party. Exuberantly I rushed up to our guests and cried out that chivlizhayshun was shaved!

How meager indeed in these degenerate days are the rewards of heroism! In return for my self -sacri­ficing services to Athens, all I received was a look of mortified despair from my comrade, and a subsequent note from the hotel manager to the effect that if I were going to continue residing in his eminently respectable hostelry, would I please not be such a nut.


There you have it!  I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!

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One Comment

  1. Sarah! I remember reading this part just before you left on your trip! It’s even better the second time and through your ‘fingertips’ :)

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