It all began with Pheidippides, who, in 490 B.C., ran to Athens from the Plains of Marathon, bringing news of a great military victory.
After his feat, which inspired the 26-mile, 385-yard modern marathon, he shouted, “Rejoice! We conquer!” Then he died.
It would have amazed the Athenian to know that hundreds of thousands of 20th-century athletes would duplicate his run just for the fun of it.
And he would have been absolutely flabbergasted to learn that today an event called “The Last Marathon” is run in some of the world’s most hideous conditions - on purpose - by people who pay to do so.
In February, on King George Island, just off the Antarctic Peninsula, 100 runners from 10 countries slogged through mud, over a slush-covered glacier and through swollen streams, all the while being buffeted by 40-mile-per-hour winds.
Staffers at international research stations cheered competitors on.
Seals and penguins stood and watched.
The Antarctic marathon, run once before, in 1995, is the extreme statement of marathon tourism, wherein runners travel long distances in order to run long distances.
We non-initiates may find it a mite, well, strange. But veterans swear by far-flung marathoning as a way to get more out of running and travel.
“I think it was really a great way to go see the Antarctic,” says Jamie Nicholson, a 37-year-old securities analyst from New York City. “It definitely heightens the experience of the environment.”
Nicholson says she ran “like a tourist,” carrying a camera and shooting a roll of film during the race.
But tourism - coupled with horrendous winds and trail conditions - didn’t compromise her performance. She finished No. 2 among women.
Nicholson’s athletic adventure, her 15th marathon, was organized by Boston-based Marathon Tours and Travel, which has a worldwide catalog of group tours, each built around a marathon or other endurance run.
Company president Thom Gilligan says that racing isn’t really the point of his company’s offerings.
“I kind of relate to racing as a way of breaking through the touristic veneer,” he says.
“Only a small percentage are out there to focus on their race times.”
On the other hand, his hard-core clientele wouldn’t be satisfied just to go somewhere gorgeous and fascinating, even if it did mean they could run every day.
Happiness, for these goal-oriented people, is conquering a challenge.
“Runners want to get that race T-shirt and that finishers’ medal,” Gilligan says. “They want to come back to their day-to-day existence and say, ‘See what I did!”’
Antarctica - which Marathon Tours won’t repeat for at least two years, if ever - involved a race limited to company clients.
But most featured races are public events, where clients are running “elbow-to-elbow with local participants,” Gilligan says.
Eating and drinking is a featured element of the race at September’s Le Marathon des Chateaux du Medoc, which runs past 50 of the most storied wineries in France’s Bordeaux region.
“The entire event is really a three-day party with dinners and receptions. The race is to justify having too much fun,” Gilligan says.
There’s partying on the run, too. “Every mile there are wine stops for those who want to indulge,” Gilligan says, adding that the hard-core racers probably will pass up the wine stops in favor of quick gulps of water.
Wine-tastings figure highly in pre-and post-race days of Marathon’s six-day Medoc Tour ($1,950, double occupancy, including airfare from New York; $1,999 from Chicago; $2,199 from San Francisco). Hotel rooms, breakfasts and four dinners are part of the package.
“Each event takes in the local tourist sites to give it a unique identity,” Gilligan says.
“In the London Marathon, for example, you start at Zero Meridian in Greenwich. In Berlin, you run through the Brandenburg Gate.”
Most overseas Marathon Tours follow the Medoc model, with the race starting a few days into the trip to allow runners to adjust to local time.
Except for workout times and race day, trips follow standard sightseeing itineraries.
International trips start at about $750, Gilligan says. The company’s most popular trip is to the January Bermuda Marathon, which this year drew more than 1,000 clients.
Some of the trips offer optional half-marathons in addition to a full-length classic. Runners who book July’s Swiss Alpine Events packages opt for races from a 3.3-mile night run in Davos to a 42-mile Alpine ultramarathon ($689 for six nights, double occupancy, from Zurich; $279 for three-day add-on).
Gilligan, a 47-year-old who runs two marathons a year, got into his branch of travel in 1977. Then a travel agency manager, he put together a trip to the Honolulu Marathon for eight runners and thus discovered his niche.
These days Marathon Tours dominates that niche. A few other companies offer similar trips intermittently.
Part of Marathon’s winning formula, according to its clients, is its clients.
“It’s really nice to be with people who understand you,” says Lynda Churchfield of Lake Charles, La. The 46-year-old, who has run 31 marathons, is a veteran of Marathon Tours’ trips to Greece, South Africa and the first Antarctic marathon.
She has plans to mark the millennium among her own kind on a Marathon Tours trip to the Year 2000’s first 26-mile, 385-yard footrace in New Zealand.
There, nobody will trouble her with the dumb, non-runner’s question: “How long was that marathon?”
For more information, contact Marathon Tours and Travel at 108 Main St., Charlestown, MA 02129; or call 800-444-4097. Their e-mail address is email@example.com; the Internet home page is www.marathontour.com