The marathon messenger's advice Paula ignored at her peril

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The Independent Online

It was not quite how it was in 490BC. On that occasion, so legend has it, the messenger Pheidippides ran with his sword and shield from the Battle of Marathon to relay news of the Greek victory over the invading Persians.

It was not quite how it was in 490BC. On that occasion, so legend has it, the messenger Pheidippides ran with his sword and shield from the Battle of Marathon to relay news of the Greek victory over the invading Persians.

Last Sunday morning, when Nikos Polias stepped out of his girlfriend's apartment into the heat and humidity of the most oppressive Athenian day of the year (100F, 70 per cent humidity), he doubled back inside and picked up the telephone.

"My brother was a volunteer handling the athletes' kit at the start of the women's marathon," he reflected three days later, sitting in Hristina Kokotou's flat in the centre of Athens. "I told him to get a message to Paula Radcliffe. I told him to tell her to run the first 5km very, very slowly - even more conservatively than I had told her myself."

Pheidippides may or may not have been the first man to run the route from Marathon to Athens - and then drop down dead, proclaiming, "Rejoice; we win" - but no man knows the 26 miles, 385 yards of the original marathon course as well as Polias. He has run it in training on countless occasions. He has raced it 10 times. He has won the annual Athens Classic Marathon that is held on it four times.

He is also the fastest Greek ever on the course, with its brutal 150-metre climb between 12 miles and 20 miles, twice running 2hr 18min 35sec. And this afternoon his heart will be bursting with pride when he carries the nation's colours in the men's marathon, the final event of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.

A native of the port of Piraeus, Polias is so steeped in the history and tradition of the marathon that he admits to having imagined himself as being Pheidippides when he ran in the 1997 World Championship race on the course. "I don't think it is possible for a runner from any other country to feel like Pheidippides," he asserted, "to feel like you are willing to give your life."

So Paula Radcliffe could have received no more heartfelt advice than that imparted by the 33-year-old Polias when they met in May at her Pyrenean training base at Font Romeu. She could have received no sounder advice, either.

"I gave her all the advice she needed to win," Polias reflected. "I told her to start slowly, to hold herself back, and to look to finish strongly. When I saw the heat and humidity was even higher than normal last Sunday I told my brother to tell her to run even more slowly for the first 5km. She didn't follow my advice.

"Maybe, for her, she felt the first 5km of the race was very slow, but in that heat and that humidity, and with the hills coming, you need to really hold yourself back. On this course the first 5km is crucial, and Paula was too fast. Even if she had been a minute behind going into the last 10km she could have run it in 32 minutes and won. She could have been like the girl from the United States [Deena Kastor] who came through for the bronze.

"In 1997, when the World Championship race was held on the course, I was 108th after the first 5km. My final position was 19th. I had the worst [previous] time among the field. I started slowly and got faster and faster. I was passing athletes like they were statues. And they were 2hr 8min runners; I was a 2hr 18min man."

Polias will set off from Marathon with the same tortoise-and-hare approach today, in a field which includes a 2hr 4min marathon man, Paul Tergat, the world record- holder. "I will run my own race," Polias said, "run it my way, and then see where I finish at the end."

Above all, Polias is deter-mined to finish the Olympic Games with pride restored in Greek athletics after the tarnished start, with the drug-test-dodging antics of Kon- stantinos Kenteris and Katerina Thanou. "That was very bad for the whole team," he acknowledged. "But still we have achieved great things: Fani Halkia winning the 400m hurdles, Athanasia Tsou-meleka winning the 20km walk [ahead of Polias's girlfriend, who finished 31st]. These are people who have shown themselves to be great athletes for Greece.

"The things that happened at the start of the Games cannot change that. The Greek team has carried on and showed it has nothing to do with doping. You cannot have all this success coming with drugs."

Polias is unlikely to add to the Greek medal haul today, but it is difficult to imagine any athlete from the host nation having pulled on the blue vest with greater pride than he will. "For me, running on the original marathon course is very special and very important," he said. "I feel kind of blessed that I am the chosen one of Greece to run this race, that life has given me this chance.

"The story of the race is part of our heritage - a running messenger who delivered a piece of our history. Maybe his name was not Pheidippides, maybe he ran a different route, but nobody can deny that somebody delivered this message.

"And I think there is a message in the story for everybody: that sometimes you have to put your life on the line for something higher. It is a higher idea, something above human existence - something to help us in our everyday lives."