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Nick Checker's new novel takes a crack at understanding the life behind the legend of Pheidippides

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He's a guy who nearly everyone has heard about, but no one really knows. And that's a great start for a novel, as author Nicholas Checker can attest.

Pheidippides, who helped save democracy in Athens from the despotic rule of the Persians more than 2,500 years ago by making an impossibly long run in scorching heat that ended in his death, has long been part of myth and fable. And he's long intrigued Checker, a New London runner, author, playwright and movie maker of Greek descent who more than two decades ago had his Pheidippides-inspired play "Run to Elysia" produced at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford (revived most recently two years ago at Stonington High School).

Now Checker is coming out with his third novel, "The Saga of Marathon," set to be released Wednesday by Wild Rose Press. In the 380-page book, Pheidippides, who many believe was probably in his early 20s at the time of his famed run from Marathon to Athens, is reimagined as the untested teenager of an unwed mother who aspires to be a citizen of his home city of Athens, which had become one of the world's first democracies just a few years earlier.

"I was true to a lot of the history," Checker said this month during an interview at the Washington Street Coffee House, a regular hangout. "I did take some liberties with a little bit of the terrain here and there."

Checker has done his homework, vigorously propelling readers into the side streets and public places that made Athens one of the ancient world's great cities. Other than a few instances of literary license, similar to one of Checker's inspirations, novelist James Clavell of "Shogun" fame, "It's as accurate, I think, as a person could make it," he said.

Checker is enamored of idealists, and he sees Pheidippides as fitting that mold. It's what inspired the Greek courier to hold steady even when he doubted his ability to make the long trek and was being told that Athens wasn't worth his trouble since he wasn't a citizen.

"I see him as a hero," Checker said. "It's about keeping your promise. 'I am an Athenian. I'm going to see my quest to the end or die trying.'"

Had Pheidippides not arrived home in time, the Persians likely would have swept through Athens and all of the Greek city-states with their superior army.

"Democracy would have died in its tracks," Checker said. "They saved Western civilization."

Checker said he sees striking similarities to today as democracy in the United States seems to be facing similar obstacles as in Athens, and will require heroes big and small in order to win the day over oligarchy. He's especially inspired by young people, he said, saying they are the ones most likely to recognize the need for real change.

"We've been through our Dark Ages; this is just another one," he said. "But I think we will come out of it ... I hope people are inspired to believe, to not give up on your ideals even if they're crumbling right in front of you. That's when it is most important to believe, when it seems there's nothing left to believe in."

Checker said one of his inspirations for writing "The Saga of Marathon" was former Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot of Mystic, with whom he reconnected two years ago at a race in Groton's Bluff Point. Burfoot encouraged Checker to write the story of Pheidippides years after he had recreated the brutal run in Greece from Marathon to Athens, having experienced first hand the difficulty of the terrain.

In the novel, Checker imagines Pheidippides as the son of a beautiful hetaera (woman of pleasure) and a rugged military officer, who is forced by custom and class structure to not recognize Pheidippides as his son. The 16-year-old courier winds up fighting in the Battle of Marathon, where Greeks repelled the first invasion by the Persians, and is then sent by his father to make the run to Athens, despite a distance about four times longer than he had ever accomplished before.

Two ruthless assassins are sent by the Persian king to track down and kill Pheidippides, but by some heavenly intervention he manages to continue on the arduous journey. Indeed, the Elysian gods have a big role in Checker's novel, betting on the outcome of Pheidippides' journey and trying to change the outcome by alternately helping him and distracting him.

The novel is cinematic in scope, traveling with long-distance courier Zagorus all the way to Sparta as the Athenians reach out to their ancient rivals for help in dispersing the Persian invaders. It also takes readers aboard the invading ships to hear reactions from the Persian King Darius, who has a penchant for ditching his losing soldiers on blood-drenched beaches after the battle is lost.

"It was crucial to work in elements of Greek history," Checker said. "But I got to fill in the blanks of Pheidippides' life."

Having already written a play based on the courier's story, Checker said, he at least had an outline of how the story would go. The difficult part, he said, was drawing out characters so that he avoided making each one a caricature. He also had to delve into Persian history and culture to be able to understand King Darius and how others likely reacted to him.

To sketch out the battle scenes and determine how a young soldier might react to his first action, Checker went back and read "The Red Badge of Courage," a famed Civil War novel by Stephen Crane.

But the major battle of the book is the one Pheidippides wages against himself as he pushes his fragile frame onward in his trek from Marathon, where he bravely serves as a foot soldier, to Athens, which is anxiously awaiting news of its soldiers' first engagement with the Persians.

Here, Checker unleashes some of his finest prose as Pheidippides refuses to give up his mission, despite the hardships that leave him exhausted and delirious:

He rose completely to his feet, a single fist clenched in front of him. “No,” he uttered hoarsely, something else stirring within him … something that came from a place unexplored inside his soul. “I will not be defeated by you silent Lords of the Heavens, wherever you might be.” The voice he had heard coming forth from his own lips was one he barely recognized. Pheidippides broke into a slow but steady jog. He stared up again at the sky, at the surrounding hillocks, and the shadows that seemed to dance deviously in the sun’s stabbing glare. “Nor will you cruel voices of the past deter me,” he muttered with defiance, as though daring another phantasm to revisit him. His pace increased, knees flexed and falling into a strong rhythm, arms bent and pumping on either side of his ribs. “If I but keep one foot moving before the other”—he drew a strong breath and proclaimed—“no power of man or god shall ever stop me!”

Pheidippides heard his own voice ring out those words of youthful defiance and, emboldened by the very sound of them, added in for good measure: “Send me your trials and taunts, I run for Athens!”

Checker said of all the creative genres he has pursued, the novel is the most introspective. It's all about the language, he said, and he spends a good deal of time writing by hand in a notebook and then editing on a computer to make sure he hasn't overused certain words or phrases.

"With a novel, the reader is living inside the story," he said. "You're living in the characters' heads."

Checker figures being of Greek origin and having completed a pair of marathons, it is fitting that he should be one to bring Pheidippides to life. Though he has never visited Greece, he feels as if it is inside him, as is the understanding of the agony of long-distance running as urged on by the likes of runner Amby Burfoot and, before him, another Boston Marathon winner from Mystic, John Kelley.

Burfoot writes a blurb for Checker's book that notes it "combines all the best elements of the Pheidippides story with overtones of modern political drama. ... The hills are long and hard, and the stumbles many, but Pheidippides refuses to give up. The first marathoner is born, and democracy survives.”

"The Saga of Marathon" is available locally at Bank Square Books and on the internet at Amazon.com.

l.howard@theday.com

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