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January 09, 2014

The Origin of the Marathon Distance

Written by Dena Evans
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26.2 miles or 42 kilometers may seem like a completely arbitrary distance, considering how the marathon has captured the imagination of the running public over the past several decades.  In reality, the marathon has its roots in a few twists and turns of history, some of which are factual, some of which are in dispute or considered to be not necessarily history in the hard and fast sense.  How did we get to the universal understanding of the 26.2 mile distance as an object of fascination and motivation for hundreds of thousands of runners each year?

 

The conventional wisdom about the genesis of the marathon consists of the brief story of a professional courier named Pheidippides, who lived around 500BC.  Running approximately 25 miles to bring news of victory by the Greeks over the Persians at Marathon, Greece, he collapsed upon arrival and announcement of his news.

 

There are several variations of this story, both in prose and poetry in the centuries since, some of which include the aspect that Pheidippides initially ran from Athens to Sparta to ask for their help, covering about 240 km in two days. The account of Herodotus, writing about half a century after the events, is often considered to be an important source, but really doesn’t describe the events as we have come to accept them, instead mentioning the efforts of Pheidippides, (as he called him, Philippides) to get to Sparta and back, and indicating that Athenian fighters won the battle and marched back to Athens the same day.

 

Either way, there is a route from Marathon to Athens that spans about 25 miles.  This route travels to the south, around Mount Penteli, which stands between the two cities.  There is also a steeper route to the north which would require a more technical trip, but only spans 35 kilometers.  In the late 1800s, the founders of the modern Olympic movement became inspired by the 1879 poem of Robert Browning, Pheidippides and decided to include a marathon in the 1896 Olympic Games.  At the time, the southern route was a well established road and became the setting for the first organized attempts at the distance:  the Greek qualifier for the Olympic marathon, and the 1896 Olympic marathon, won by Spyridon Louis of Greece in a come-from-behind 2:58.

 

Inspired by the 1896 Athens Olympic Marathon, US team manager John Graham returned to New England and helped establish the Boston Athletic Association-hosted marathon of 24.5 miles on April 17, 1897, now well into its second century of annual running.  The winner, John McDermott, had already won the first ever marathon on US soil (approximately 25 miles) from Connecticut to the Bronx on September 19, 1896.

 

The 1900 Olympic race in Paris featured 13 competitors, seven finishers, and Michel Théato of France as the winner in 2:59, while 1904’s effort in St. Louis was a bit of a disaster. Trimming 32 starters to 14 finishers, many received aid such as physical assistance, injection of stimulants on the road to keep them going, and more.  One competitor was found prone along the road, suffering from dust inhalation from the lead vehicles, while a competitor who had earlier dropped out, was initially and mistakenly considered the winner while crossing the finish line after being dropped off by his ride a few miles short of the finish line.  After everything, Thomas Hicks of the US was declared the winner in 3:28.  The Paris distance was about 25 miles, and the St. Louis distance was planned to be 24.85 or 40K.

 

In 1908, while the distance was anticipated to be between 25-26 miles, long planned efforts to incorporate a protected start from the crowds within the grounds of Windsor Castle as well as to provide a more spectator friendly finish on the track at White City Stadium in Shepherd’s Bush resulted in what became officially “about 26 miles plus 385 yards on the track” when then best start was finally decided upon.  Often reported as a special royal request, this starting spot appears more likely to be a pragmatic consideration.   Although later measured to be actually a bit shorter than this listed distance, the 26 miles and 385 yards number has stood the test of time as the accepted distance of the marathon ever since.

 

For additional information on the historical establishment of the marathon distance, check out these sources:

 

Longman, Jeré The Marathon’s Random Route to Its Length. ” New York Times April 20, 2012.  Web.  Accessed January 8, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/21/sports/the-marathons-accidental-route-to-26-miles-385-yards.html

 

Marathon History.”  Association of International Marathons and Distance Races. Accessed January 8, 2014. http://www.aimsworldrunning.org/marathon_history.htm

 

The History of the Marathon.” Marathon Guide. Accessed January 8, 2014.  http://www.marathonguide.com/history/

 

Last modified on July 09, 2018
Dena Evans

Dena Evans

Dena Evans joined runcoach in July, 2008 and has a wide range of experience working with athletes of all stripes- from youth to veteran division competitors, novice to international caliber athletes.

From 1999-2005, she served on the Stanford Track & Field/ Cross Country staff. Dena earned NCAA Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year honors in 2003 as Stanford won the NCAA Division I Championship. She was named Pac-10 Cross Country Coach of the Year in 2003-04, and West Regional Coach of the Year in 2004.

From 2006-08, she worked with the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative, helping to expand the after school fitness programs for elementary school aged girls to Mountain View, East Menlo Park, and Redwood City. She has also served both the Stanford Center on Ethics and the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession as a program coordinator.

Dena graduated from Stanford in 1996.

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