The Magnificent History of the Marathon
Have you ever wondered who came up with the idea of running 26.2 miles and calling it a marathon? This article will outline the history of the marathon (taken from a variety of online and print sources). You may be surprised about how this race came to be!
Where It All Started (in Ancient Greece)
The idea for the modern marathon is known to have come from Ancient Greeks. Way back then (around 490 B.C.), they used long-distance runners to deliver messages from city to city. A Greek messenger by the name of Pheidippides ran around 24 miles from Marathon to Athens to tell the great news of victory his people had over the Persians. Upon his arrival in Marathon, Pheidippides declared “Rejoice we conquer” (“We have won”), and then died.
Although we cannot be sure that the dying runner was, in fact, Pheidippides, historical research shows that Pheidippides did indeed exist and that his run from Marathon to Athens would not have been his first in delivering messages regarding the Battle of Marathon. Before that, an Athenian general sent him to run 150 miles to Sparta to recruit their help against the Persians at Marathon, and history tells us that when the battle began, he was among Athens’ fighters. So, whether or not Pheidippides was the one to collapse and die after giving the message of victory, his story is still pretty incredible.
Origins of the Modern Marathon
In 1896, the Olympics were revived in Athens, Greece and included a marathon as a local Greek event. The event was founded on the ideas of heroism and sacrifice for their country, not unlike going to war, as it was to believed that running that far could kill you. Greece’s own Spyridon Louis won the race in 2:58:50.
Spread of the Marathon & 26.2 Miles
In 1897, the first Boston Marathon was held. The then 25-mile race emulated the Olympic Marathon and had 18 entrants, 15 starters & 10 finishers.
Modern marathons at the time were 24-25 miles, but the distance of 26.2 was first run in 1908 at the London Olympics. At this race, the 24-mile Olympic marathon course was extended so that the Queen and Royal Family could watch the start of the race at Windsor Castle. In 1924, the Olympic marathon returned to the 26.2-mile distance for good.
Transition Into Mainstream
From 1896 – 1970, running and marathons were far from mainstream life, as it was continued to be viewed as dangerous and not for the participation of all people. During this time, women were especially excluded or ignored.
In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon (have you seen the famous photos of men trying to push her off the course?). After the 1970s, running started to move into mainstream culture as people became more health conscious. New marathons popped up including New York (1970), Berlin (1974), Paris (1976), Chicago (1977) and London (1981).
The 26.2-mile race as we know it today has now become a popular event throughout the world, especially in the U.S. In fact, seven of the fifteen largest marathons in the world are held in the U.S. every year. With the move into the mainstream, marathon finishing times have become slower as more and more people compete. In 1980, the median finishing time was 3:32 for males, and 4:03 for females. In 2013, times dipped to 4:16 for males and 4:41 for females. This doesn’t necessarily mean runners are getting slower, it just means that more and more people from elite to beginner runners are running marathons!
From starting as a symbol of sacrifice for your country to a lifelong goal of many people today, I believe the marathon has made a very interesting and dynamic transition!