At least for the first mile, and only if they looked up see a statue called The Spirit of the Marathon, runners in the Boston Marathon would unlikely know that the 50th anniversary race was won by last Greek to do it, under odds so difficult it was predicted he would die in the streets.
The story of Stylianos Kyriakides is of a man who ran not for himself, but for his country in the aftermath of World War II, narrowly surviving hanging at the hands of the occupying Nazis in Athens because in his pocket was his credentials as a marathoner for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, signed by two leading members of the Third Reich.
For Kyriakides, the race was “Win or Die,” – the words written on a note handed to him moments before the start by George Demeter, a Greek-American state legislator from Boston who owned a hotel and had befriended Kyriakides.
The first time was in 1938 when the Greek runner, the champion of Greece and the Balkans, although a Cypriot by birth, had to drop out of the Boston race because blisters caused by new running shoes he was given.
Then again eight years later when Kyriakides, now withered and gaunt from the hunger and famine sweeping Greece, was brought back to Boston by Demeter to win the race or die trying, so the world would know what was happening in Greece after World War II, a country split by civil war and where people were dying in the streets from hunger, carted away each morning in a morbid ritual.
The marathon, of course, is named for the aftermath of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC – preceding by a decade the more remembered last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae, but Greeks have not been able to win in Boston, the most celebrated marathon in the world if no longer the most important, since Kyriakides took to the starting line in 1946.
He and was nearly barred from running by race doctors who said he was too weak and might perish in the streets, his figure still gaunt from the horrors of World War II in Greece, where Civil War would ravage the still war-torn cities and countryside.
That was before Demeter jumped up and said, “He is Greek, he is running for Greece,” the doctors backed off, and then Demeter wrote a note on a piece of paper – the front and back – and clasped it to Kyriakides’ hand and told him, “Stelio, read the top now and the back at the finish – when you win.”
Kyriakides looked at the front of the note and saw the words “H Tan E Epi Tas,” the credo said to Spartan sons by their mothers before a battle to return home “With Your Shield or On It,” and knew he had to win against impossible odds even if he seemed too weak to run. Adding to his emotion was that the defending champion was Johnny Kelley, the Irish-American whom he had met in Berlin and become friendly with, and who invited him run Boston.
In 1938, the 28-year-old Greek traveled 5,000 miles by ship to take Kelley up on his invitation and run in that year’s marathon. According to an Associated Press report, Kyriakides, “kept in condition by taking long daily walks on shipboard.”
YOU CAN’T LOSE
A Boston Globe headline called him“A Modern Pheidippedes” after the mythical ancient Greek runner who, according to legend, ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians with the single word Nenikikamen.
Prognosticators gave Kyriakides a healthy chance of victory, labeling him “among the foremost contenders.” Yet he developed blisters in his feet midway through the race and was forced to drop out.
Amid his disappointment, he made a fateful prediction to Globe sportswriter Jerry Nason.
“Someday, I’ll come back, and maybe I’ll win your Marathon.”
Before Kyriakides could redeem himself, world events interfered. In April 1939, a Globe report announced Kyriakides would be unable to run in that year’s marathon because he had been drafted into the Greek army amid tensions in Europe.
When WWII ended, the 36-year-old found the strength to return to the form that had once made him an Olympian, running to bring attention to the plight of his country, running not glory or fame or money, but for the human race.
His victory came under such miraculous circumstances it was a movie and, indeed, Disney plans to make one. Heading near the end, it was Kelley and Kyriakides, having broken away from the field, running stride-for-stride, shoulder-to-shoulder, two friends determined to win, Kelley to retain his crown and Kyriakides to take it.
It was Kelley who surged first, taking what looked to be an insurmountable lead before a wavering Kyriakides, nearly hallucinating, seeing visions of the Greek flag on the Acropolis and his family having only peas to eat, looked into the crowd and saw an old man with a big mustache who yelled at him in Greek “Yia teen Ellatha, yia ta pathia sou!” for Greece and your children, it was.
Kelley said he heard the crowd yelling “The Greek! The Greek!” and looked over his shoulder to see Kyriakides run past him like a rocket. As he came across the finish line, Kyriakides turned over the note. It said Nenikikamen. We are victorious.
The game he garnered, staying another month, brought a shipload of contributions of clothing, medical supplies and other goods for his fellow Greeks. “How can you beat a guy like that?” Kelley acknowledged afterward. “He wasn’t running for himself, he was doing it for his country.”
The statue in Hopkinton, just after the start of the Boston Marathon and its twin, in Marathon, Greece, show Kyriakides running with Spiridon Loues, winner of the 1896 Olympic marathon in Athens and Pheidippides, gifts of New Balance athletic shoe company owner Jim Davis, a fellow Greek-American.
(The writer and Nick Tsiotos are co-authors of Running With Pheidippides, published by Syracuse University Press)