ATHENS, Greece – A record 12,500 runners are set to take part in the Athens Classic Marathon on Oct. 31, which will mark 2,500 years since the Battle of Marathon.
The promotion and prize money for the $2.1 million event has been limited by Greece's serious financial crisis, organizers said Tuesday. Only about 20 elite runners are expected to compete in the race, whose hilly course virtually rules out the possibility of a world record.
The Greek race traces the run of the messenger Pheidippides in 490 B.C. from the plain of Marathon to Athens, where legend says he collapsed and died after announcing the victory of the Greeks over Persian invaders.
The battle is seen as a turning point in the history of ancient Greece.
The marathon was first run as a competitive race when the Olympics were revived as modern games in 1896 in Athens. The annual race in Athens still ends at the marble Panathenian stadium where those games were held, but it has only been upgraded to a major sporting event in the past decade.
"Millions of people know what the marathon race is, but many of them do not know what the origin of that race is," said Nicolas Kanellopoulos, head of the Greek National Tourism Organization, an event sponsor.
"Not every marathon runner dreams of running the classic course ... That is something we're working to change."
A series of events arranged by organizers and private sponsors will be held in late October to highlight this year's race, including an outdoor concert and a conference by the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races.
Vassilis Sevastis, head of Greece's Amateur Athletic Association, said the number of participants — more than double the previous record in 2008 — had "reached its physical limit" this year, because of lack of space at the starting point of the race in Marathon and narrow sections of the race route itself.
"We are trying to have more elite runners every year ... but a finishing time of 2 hours and 10 minutes on the Athens course, would mean 2:06 on a (flatter) course," he said. "And of course luring elite athletes requires a lot of money — and that's difficult in the current circumstances."
Greece was rescued from the brink of bankruptcy this year with international loans from European countries and the International Monetary Fund worth $152 billion over three years.
African runners have made up the bulk of elite runners in Athens in recent years, and again lead the rankings in the 2010 race — with Kenyans Jonathan Kosgei Kipkorir, Jackson Koech and Jacob Kiplagat Yator for the men, and Ashu Kasim of Ethiopia and Russia's Irina Permitina and Kenyan Mary Ptikani for the women.