Louis entering the stadium at the 1896 Athens Olympics
Louis entering the stadium at the 1896 Athens Olympics / photo: public domain

A Training Truth from the First Olympic Marathoner

The first Olympic marathon was won by a runner with no coach, no training schedule, no gym, no special diet—only a lifetime of logging 16 miles a day delivering water.

Louis entering the stadium at the 1896 Athens Olympics

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Gather ’round, runners, for a lesson as old as the Olympic Games.

Once upon a time there was a man who ran only junk miles, very very slowly. And he ran the Olympics and became the first great marathon winner in history. Here is the story of Spiridon Louis, in support of the need for logging base mileage.

Spiridon Louis
Spiridon Louis / photo: public domain

Louis grew up in a poor family in Amaroússion (or Maroússi), about eight miles to the north of Athens, Greece, not far off the route supposedly taken by the messenger Pheidippides as he approached the fatal end of his legendary run from Marathon. It’s a suburb now, but in the 1890s, it was a peasant village surviving mainly because of its fresh-water spring.

The Louis family had a small business transporting barrels of water from the spring into Athens, using mules or a cart. Spiridon, a son of the family, spent much of his youth walking or jogging alongside the mules, eight miles each way, every day, year round. Probably the return journey was faster, with empty barrels and mules eager for home. We can only guess.

water carrying mule
Water carrying mule / photo: Shutterstock

In the revived Olympic Games that they hosted in 1896, the Greeks could not match the college-trained overseas athletes in any track and field event, but they had high hopes for the new “marathon race.” One enthusiast was Colonel Papadiamontopoulos, who would be the official starter for the marathon. He looked up some men who had shown promising running talent when they did military training under his command.

One was Spiridon Louis, now 24 years old, still jogging from home to the city and back every day. Louis ran pretty well in the second of the Greeks’ two trial marathon races, finishing fifth out of 38, and so was among the thirteen Greeks who joined four overseas track stars on the start-line in Marathon, on April 10, 1896.

Three of the foreign runners had swept the 1500m, the longest track race in those Games. They confidently expected to do the same in the new marathon race. Instead, they discovered how different from track twenty-five miles on hot, dusty, hilly roads can be. Albin Lermusiaux (France) had a huge lead at nine miles, but by sixteen he was out of it in every sense, dazed and cramped. Then Teddy Flack (Australia), who had won the 800m and 1500m, took over, looking sure of his third win. But at eighteen miles (as usual in the marathon) the real race was only beginning.

Two Greeks, who had been minutes behind at half way, began to close. Kharilaos Vasilakos, an Athens customs officer, had won the first Greek trial, so was the local favorite. With him was the unknown Spiridon Louis. He had eight miles to go, on foot into Athens, just like every other day of his life.

Three athletes in training for the marathon race of the 1896 Athens Olympic Games, on the road from Marathon, Greece, Vasilakos in the middle.
Three athletes in training for the marathon race of the 1896 Athens Olympic Games, on the road from Marathon, Greece, Vasilakos in the middle. / photo: Burton Holmes

As Vasilakos slowed on the last uphills, Louis moved calmly away, and soon passed the faltering Flack. Thanks to the daily jogging journey, Louis possessed the greatest marathon asset—miles in the legs. And on the big day, he also showed the greatest marathon virtue – patience. Not until 23 miles did he increase his pace, perhaps because his fiancée Eleni appeared, to give him orange segments and encouragement. Soon he was escorted by shouting boys.  A cyclist pedaled ahead crying “Ellene! Ellene!” [“Greek! Greek!”]

As he entered the stadium, the crowd “went mad for joy.” Hats and bouquets were tossed in the air. Instead of mules, two royal princes jogged alongside. Showered with flowers and jewels, Louis attained more than ordinary fame. In Greece, even today, if you urge someone to great endeavour in any field, you still say “Run like Louis!”

Louis had no coach, no training schedule, no gym, no special diet, almost no race experience, little education. Only those years of daily jogging made him the first great marathon winner.

Many successors have learned the mileage lesson. Tom Longboat logged long runs on the Brantford, Ontario, Onondaga reservation before his surprise win at Boston in 1907. Clarence De Mar was probably the first to total a hundred miles a week, and collected seven Boston titles and an Olympic bronze medal as a result. Naoko Takahashi was the first woman to break the  2:20 barrier because she ran more miles than any woman before her. Ed Whitlock was reticent about how he became the greatest over-70 runner in history, but running three or four hours non-stop around his local cemetery must have something to do with it. Gene Dykes, who is chipping away at Whitlock’s records, credits his breakthrough to adding ultradistance races, and training, to his schedule.

It’s not only marathoners who need a base of miles. Arthur Lydiard became a legendary coach by insisting that even for 800m, you need a base, ideally 100 miles a week, before you begin the faster work. These days, we know that a mix of elements in required to fulfill a runner’s potential. But you can’t build a house without a base.

As Spiridon Louis’s story reveals, there’s no such thing as junk miles.

Roger Robinson’s When Running Made History, after endorsements as the best running book ever, will soon go into its third printing.

From PodiumRunner

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