Running the Marathon of Life: It's About the Route, Not the Destination

Nov 15, 2010 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Recently the word "marathon" has appeared frequently in the mass media, and for good reason. Many people are familiar with the marathon race, but few know its origins, so let's begin by underscoring that last month's Athens Classic Marathon in Greece marked some 2,500 years since the Greeks overcame the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. A record 12,500 runners, two thirds of them from overseas, took part in the race, which, among other things, commemorated the path of the legendary messenger and soldier Pheidippides, who is said to have run from the battlefield in Marathon (the namesake of the race) to Athens with word that the Greeks had defeated the Persian army.

According to legend, Pheidippides ran the entire distance without stopping and burst into the Athenian assembly exclaiming, "Νενικήκαμεν" (Nenikékamen, "We have won!") before collapsing and dying. Putting questions about its historical accuracy aside, the legend remains, and the marathon, with its broad-based, metaphorical implications for life, has captured the bodies, minds, and souls of generations around the world ever since.

The event held in Athens this year is also important in other respects. In addition to the competitors in the full marathon, about 8,000 runners took part in shorter 5K and 10K races, and there was also a race for people with special needs and abilities. Among those who participated in these "mini" marathons were a number of celebrities who helped to bring attention not only to the event but also to Greece and the country's economic plight and related challenges. For example, it was reported that Greek-American actress and U.S. television personality Maria Menounos ran the 5K portion with her parents, who immigrated to America from Greece. Importantly, Menounos emphasized that the reason behind her adventure in Athens, which began on the ancient battlefield in the town of Marathon, was in large part to become an "international voice" for her parents' homeland during these tough economic times. In short, she said that she wanted to do her part to help Greece in her time of need.

Another notable participant, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, ran the 10K race and used the event as an opportunity to draw attention to Greece's formidable challenges. "Greece is running its own marathon," he said, adding words of optimism that Greece and her people will finish the challenging race. Even if the race is mostly uphill and the clock seems to be running out, Greece and Greeks will prevail. Failure or defeat to the Greek Prime Minister is not an option. Having faced most recently a crossroads with the threat of impasse due to local elections, Papandreou still comes across as a true optimist, predicting that better times for Greece are around the corner (circa 2012?) and stressing that Greece will carry out her commitments in spite of whatever political costs his party and leadership must bear. In the meantime, the country's marathon race continues.

Since the birth of the marathon "race" in the 1896 Athens Olympic Games, which recalled the ancient glory of Greece, thousands of runners have followed in the steps of Pheidippides from the City of Marathon to the Panathinaikon Stadium in Athens, where those games were held, and many millions around the world have taken part in similar marathon races. The marathon was one of the original modern Olympic events, and it has become a tradition for the men's Olympic marathon to be the last event of the athletics calendar, with a finish inside the host Olympic stadium and near the closing ceremonies. And readers may well remember, as history seeks to repeat itself, that the marathon of the 2004 Summer Olympics revived the traditional route from Marathon to Athens ending at Panathinaikon Stadium, the venue for the 1896 Summer Olympics.

In so many ways, the marathon has become not only a symbol of our civilization's long and difficult route, the events of today notwithstanding, but also a message like that delivered by Pheidippides 2,500 years ago, a message attesting to the human spirit's victory over fatigue and against overwhelming odds. It also has become a message of hope, faith, peace, and democracy of which Greece and Greeks should be proud, and that the world must never forget.

"Where there is a will there is a way," the saying goes. But, more fundamentally, as I describe in my book, "Prisoners of Our Thoughts," where there is an aim, there is a will. This notion was first espoused by my mentor, Viktor Frankl, whose personal story of finding a reason to live amidst the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps has inspired millions. Indeed, the "will to meaning" (that is, the authentic commitment to meaningful values and goals) can help us rise above and beyond everything we think possible, or think may be impossible -- like running a marathon.

Let's consider another new "celebrity" on the marathon scene, Edison Pena, one of the 33 trapped Chilean miners, who competed in the New York City Marathon earlier this month. The 34-year-old Edison demonstrated the same true grit and passion that helped him survive more than two months underground when he, struggling in pain, finished the entire course. Despite his swollen knees and horrifying near-death experience only a short time ago, he made it to the finish line carrying not only the Chilean flag but the spirit of Pheidippides with him. His first time away from his native Chile, Edison said that he wanted to motivate other people to also find the courage and strength to transcend their own pain and persevere. Moreover, he described running in the mine as his salvation, his way of proving how much he wanted to live -- a meaningful "aim" if there ever was one.

Running a marathon for Edison is not about a race per se; it is about life. Over the last 2,500 years, our common understanding of the notion of "marathon" is perhaps finally going to return to its Greek roots. Rather than simply trying to win something, enter the record books, or even cross a finish line, the idea of running a marathon now has much deeper meaning. Although similar to the preparation and training, including the "agony of defeat (da feet)," that goes into running a marathon race, running the "Marathon of Life" is much more akin to the meaning-centered message carried so many years ago by the Greek Pheidippides and most recently by the Chilean Edison Pena.


You can find out more about Dr. Alex Pattakos, author of the international bestselling book "Prisoners of Our Thoughts," in his HuffPost bio. You can learn about his new initiative, The OPA Way!® of "living a happy, healthy, meaningful life," as well as join the new OPA! Village (it's free!) at