Elite distance runner Maria Polyzou – who last weekend competed in the New York City Marathon – wrote herself a place in history in 2010 when she became the first woman to ever complete a repeat of the mythical 540km foot journey of the legendary messenger Pheidippides between Marathon, Sparta and Athens. Shortly after her astonishing achievement, Graham Wood caught up with Greece’s very own wonder woman.
August 2, 2010, 8.10pm. The sun was just beginning to set over the Tomb of Marathon in East Attica and a slight breeze tickled the air as Maria Polyzou jogged slowly into view, arriving at the entrance to the archaelogical site exhausted yet elated.
The 42-year-old Greek women’s marathon record holder was met by a guard of honour by members of a religious society dressed as Spartan soldiers. Shouts of ‘Bravo Maria!’, ‘You’ve done it!’ and ‘You are amazing!’ and warm applause filled the air as a joyous atmosphere took hold.
It was the least Polyzou deserved. The Patra-born athlete had just covered a distance of 540 kilometres on foot in eight days with the sum total of 10 hours sleep. Definitely not something you do every week.
Setting off from the Acropolis in Athens on Monday, July 26 and reaching the southern Peloponnesian city of Sparta on July 29, Polyzou then ran back to Athens and then on to the Tomb of Marathon. A superhuman effort which entailed running a double marathon every day for a week, with minimal rest in between.
There could have been no better way to mark the start of celebrations of the Battle of Marathon’s 2,500-year anniversary.
Polyzou faced numerous problems on her arduous journey, from high fever to blisters and swollen knees and feet. She started the run wearing size 39 running shoes and finished wearing her husband’s size 41s, also losing several kilos.
“The first thing I wanted to do after I finished was to see my daughter and then to sleep,” recalls Polyzou to Insider.
“I will never forget that feeling when I arrived and saw the crowd there to welcome me. It was a special feeling. I felt humbled that so many people had come to see me complete my journey.”
At the time of writing, exactly two week’s had passed since Polyzou, who had never before attempted a distance greater than the marathon distance of 42km, completed her remarkable feat. So how did she feel?
“Well, my body is recovering day by day and I feel a lot healthier and more comfortable than I did just after finishing,” she says. “Everything was hurting. There was not a bone or muscle in my body which didn’t cause me some sort of pain. My knees and the soles of my feet were the worst. It felt like I had burned the bottom of my feet.”
Doctors informed Polyzou that it would take between two to three months for a body to fully adjust and get back to ‘normal’.
“I feel a great calmness now,” she adds. “I had not quite understood what I had achieved immediately afterwards, I was more focused on the fact simply that I had completed it and I still existed. I said to myself ‘Thank God I’m still here!
“It was difficult to put into words in the beginning but when I think about it now I understand the importance of what I have done. I simply feel so elated at having done it and having played a part in the history of athletics and more importantly the history of my country.”
History played the most important role in Polyzou’s decision to take on the epic run.
“The only reason I decided to do this was because of the 2,500-year anniversary of the Battle of Marathon. I wanted to honour the soldiers and Pheidippides,” she says.
Those of us that know our history will remember that it was a Greek victory in that skirmish precisely two and a half Millennia ago that is widely acknowledged to have ensured the democratic legacy of Western culture.
The marathon of course celebrates the run of Pheidippides, from the battlefield near Marathon to Athens in 490 BC. Pheidippides was carrying the news a Greek victory over the Persians and is said to have collapsed and died at the end of his effort. Out of that legend, the marathon race was born.
But the original legend, whose first report was 600 years after the battle was that the messenger first went to Sparta to ask for help, was rebuffed due to the fact that the Spartans were in the middle of a religious festival, and ran back to Marathon, before going to Athens to announce victory following the successful efforts of 10,000 Athenian soldiers and 1,000 Plataeans who repelled the invading army of King Darius of Persia.
“The most difficult times were when I had to cross the mountains,” Polyzou reveals of her trip through the peaks of the Peloponnese. “When I crossed the Artemisio Oros (Mount Artemis) my mind did actually wander back to 2,500 years ago and I thought about how Pheidippides must have felt when he made this journey. I was completely off the beaten track, in places there was not even a small path and I had to climb carefully up and then down again. It was an unbelievable adventure that I will never forget.”
Running on roads is one thing, but crossing mountain ranges in a style not dissimilar to Frodo and his pals in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is something else. Did she ever think about stopping then?
“No, the thought never entered my head,” is the defiant response. “Of course there were moments when others around me were saying ‘your body can’t cope with this anymore, that’s it’. But each day after a rest I felt reborn and was determined to go on. I felt very strong. My soul kept my body going.”
“I think everything else I have done in sport and in my life were the small steps and pathways which led me to this. It is definitely the pinnacle of my achievements.”
Polyzou herself perhaps best sums up what the modern-day Marathon means to those who take part.
“The marathon is more than simply an athletic event,” she says. “It is a test against the limits of the human body and soul. I think that if you can run a marathon you can say that you not only have attained the best from your body but it is a triumph of the spirit.”
Insider Weekly, November 8, 2017.