The marathon messenger's advice Paula ignored at her peril

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."

News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Life and Style
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness