Athletes often inspire us with their achievements year after year in various sporting events, but very few stories are as inspirational as that of Stylianos Kyriakides and his dramatic Boston Marathon victory in 1946. The story was recounted in the book Running With Pheidippides: Stylianos Kyriakides, the Miracle Marathoner by Nick Tsiotos and Andy Dabilis, longtime staff member at The National Herald. The authors spoke with TNH about the remarkable Kyriakides and about the process of writing their book.
TNH: What inspired you to write the book?
Andy Dabilis: Nick's answer will mostly explain how we decided to write the book but the idea came when we were writing The Golden Greek: An All-American story, the biography of our greatest athlete, Harry Agganis, who died tragically at 26 in May, 1955 during the start of his second season as the first baseman for the Boston Red Sox, and as he was also going to play professional football.
TNH: How long did the process take from idea to publication?
AD: I was working for The Boston Globe, in 1995, and Nick was a school teacher in Boston when we got started on it and spent about two years off and on reading every piece we could find in Boston and U.S. newspapers on microfiche and interviewing some of the principals still alive, including Johnny Kelly, the winner of the 1945 Boston Marathon and the defending champ during his down the stretch showdown in the 1946 Marathon where Kyriakides beat him.
Kelley met Kyriakides at the 1936 Berlin Marathon where they became friends and Kyriakides was invited to run in the 1938 Boston Marathon, where he had to drop out because he had been given a new pair of shoes that made his feet bleed and he vowed to return to win it. But then World War II broke out.
It was a pretty daunting task to put together but it was made easier when Nick flew to Athens to meet Kyriakides' son Dimitri, who had a treasure trove of articles in Greek newspapers that Nick read along with interviewing Kyriakides' family, including his daughter Eleni who was in a very dramatic scene in the book where she was in a stroller with him and his wife, Iphighenia, during the Nazi occupation in Athens and they were stopped by a German patrol.
Kyriakides was taken into a building with a number of other men but when his pockets were searched he had credentials from the Berlin Marathon and he was let go but many of the others did not survive that night.
We actually thought about naming it The Miracle Marathon because he was so gaunt and emaciated from hunger during the war and he was in no condition to really run in 1946, but he wanted to make good on his promise and thought if he was victorious he could draw the world's attention to the hunger and deprivation in Greece and, as a Cypriot, wanted to promote enosis.
We decided on Running With Pheidippides as there is a key section in the book tying the two together as Kyriakides trained. It was published by Syracuse University press and was twice optioned for a film but not made although it would be a great inspirational story and put a Greek hero on the screen.
The intention was to resurrect a great Greek athlete and hero whose victory led to him returning to Greece with boatloads of critical goods and food and to a welcome unseen in the country, hundreds of thousands of people in and around Syntagma Square, which curiously has been forgotten as he almost was.
There's the kind of drama in this story you couldn't make up. When he returned to Boston in 1946 he went to see Boston Globe Sports Editor Jerry Nason, whom he had met in 1938 during his embarrassing run.
Kyriakides looked so weak that Nason didn't recognize him at first and when Kyriakides said he was there to win the marathon Nason thought it impossible because it didn't look like he could even walk the course.
A benefactor who owned a hotel, George Demeter – who had sponsored him before as well, took him in and told his cook to feed him steak and eggs while he trained before the race and Nason wrote about his return.
As he was at the starting line in Hopkinton, a town 26 miles west of Boston, with Demeter, race officials came over and said he wouldn't be allowed to run because it was feared he would die in the streets.
“He will run!” Demeter said. “He's running for Greece.” As the official left, Demeter wrote something on the front and back of a piece of paper and told him to read the top now but only turn it over if he won.
The top said, “H Tan H Epi Tas,” what Spartan mothers had said to their children going off to war, handing them their shield with the admonition to “Come home with it. Or on it.”
By the time the race got into the home stretch, it was just Kelley and Kyriakides and then a remarkable series of sequences occurred that led to Kyriakides, who was almost on the verge of collapsing, pulling away to win. Turning over the note to read what it said, he saw it was an historic day, the race's 50th anniversary.
As it turned out, the race was held on the Saturday before Greek Easter and that night Kyriakides went to the Cathedral in Boston and was given the honor of the first lighting of the candles.
TNH: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Kyriakides while working on the book?
AD: His humility. There was no guile in him. We exchanged letters with the now late great 100-meter American spring champion Payton Jordan who, if WWII had not intervened would have had a good chance to win that event at the 1940 Olympics, following Jesse Owens' 1936 triumphs in Berlin.
Jordan met Kyriakides and they talked a lot at Kyriakides' home and extolled his Greek friend's kindness and genuine virtues as a champion who didn't run for fame, glory or money, but for his country. He was also running for the human race.
Nick Tsiotos: Andy and I were on a plane in 1996, going to speak in Pittsburgh about our first book, The Golden Greek Harry Agganis. Pappas Post Editor Greg Pappas had invited us.
While in flight on the plane I was reading about The Boston Globe's five greatest races in the Boston Marathon 100th Anniversary edition. The Kyriakides-Kelley race was featured. I turned to Andreas and told him this is our next book.
My immediate thought was to the heroism of the Greek people in WWII through the eyes and plight of a marathoner. My parents lived through the occupation in Greece.
This became a reality as over 100 million people saw in the 2004 Olympics the award-winning documentary Journey of a Warrior.
Personally, this was my KATHIKON, my obligation as a Hellene with great pride. Two weeks later, I called Andreas and told him I am going to Greece. Andreas said, "You're crazy!" I flew to Greece during my school vacation for a week interviewing the late Iphigenia Kyriakides and family.
The process took about two years. We were fortunate Andreas was an editor at the Boston Globe and had access to microfilm from that era.
Andreas also was a reporter, thorough researcher, and brilliant journalist. I was fortunate to have grown up in the Boston Greek Orthodox Cathedral, the community that hosted Kyriakides and where George Demeter attended. It was also the Church of presidential candidate Mike Dukakis, who watched the race.
Two things I learned: the first “tou elegai oi psixi tou itan katharos Ellinas! His soul spoke loud and clear that he was a pure Hellene!” And the second was that the Nazis were going to execute him.
Running With Pheidippides: Stylianos Kyriakides, the Miracle Marathoner by Nick Tsiotos and Andy Dabilis is available online.