If you’ve ever run a marathon, you’ll know exactly how long it is. No doubt you felt every inch of the 26.2 mile long course as you ran.
For those who are smart enough not to subject themselves to that kind of torture, the length of a marathon is one of those quiz questions that always seem to pop up.
Most people tend to wonder about the odd length of marathon courses. What is the point of that .2 of a mile? Why not just make it a round 26 miles. Even better, a clean 25 miles?
Well, the history of the marathon shows us how we arrived at that annoyingly untidy course length.
The Very First Marathon
The marathon race didn’t begin as a sport. It’s actually a product of war.
You see, the first marathon was run in 490 BC following the battle of Marathon.
The battle of Marathon was fought between the Athenian forces and an invading Persian army. Despite the enormous amount of Persian soldiers, the Athenian army won the battle decisively.
A messenger called Pheidippides was dispatched from Marathon to Athens with news of the Athenian victory. He ran the 25 miles between the two cities before collapsing at the feet of the Athenian people and dying.
Now you might be wondering how we went from a delightfully round number like 25 to the irksome 26.2 miles.
Well, let’s take a look.
In 1896 the very first modern Olympic games were held. They had been revived by a classics loving Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin.
These games were to be held every four years in a different country. They were a spectacle of international talent and a display of the power and prowess of humankind.
Coubertin, like many men at the time, had received a classical education. He was well versed in the Greek myths including Pheidippides’ story.
In honor of the messenger who ran himself to death, Coubertin included the marathon race in his modern Olympic games. It would start in the town of Marathon and end in the Olympic stadium in Athens, thus recreating the 25 mile run of Pheidippides.
Appropriately enough, the marathon was won that first year by a Greek runner called Spyridon Louis.
From then on, the marathon race became a fixture of the Olympic games. Its popularity was such that marathons were organized outside of Olympic years with the Boston Marathon starting up in 1897.
1900 Summer Olympics
The 1900 summer Olympic games were held in Paris at the suggestion of Coubertin. The games coincided with the world fair and featured under 1000 athletes.
The marathon was run at these games but it proved rather controversial.
The course was supposed to start and end at the Bois de Boulogne. However, the runners ran into difficulties due to the poorly marked course. Many had to double back on themselves and a few even ended up being hit by cyclists and cars.
The winner of the race was a Frenchman named Michel Théato. However, at least one runner claimed to have not been overtaken throughout the whole race. This suggested that runners ran different routes.
Because of the confusion, the length of the Paris course was not properly defined. It should have been 25 miles to match the original marathon. However, the full distance covered varied widely.
1904 St. Louis Olympics
The third Olympics were held in St. Louis, Louisiana. Again, it was timed to coincide with the World Fair being held there.
The marathon course that year was again 25 miles long. Just like the Paris marathon in the previous games, the 1904 marathon was also marred in controversy.
First and foremost, the competitors were mostly middle distance runners who decided to take a punt on the longer race. There were a few ‘marathon runners’ who had won or placed in the Boston marathon but they were the rarities.
There were also a few wildcard entries to the marathon race that year. These wildcards included 10 Greeks who hadn’t even run a marathon and a Cuban mailman who arrived at the starting line in a white long-sleeved shirt, long dark trousers, a beret, and a pair of dress shoes!
When the starting pistol fired, the men began the course and had to run through dust ridden streets dodging traffic, dog walkers, and delivery carts. The coach’s cars that followed the runners kicked up mountains of dust leaving one runner hospitalized with hemorrhaging from swallowing dust.
There were only two places for runners to secure freshwater along the whole course as the race organizer wanted to observe the effects of dehydration.
One runner was chased off the course by wild dogs, while the Cuban mailman stopped to chat with spectators before snatching some peaches. He later also stopped off at an orchard to grab an apple. Those apples turned out to be rotten which caused stomach cramps so he lay down to sleep off the cramps!
About the 9 mile mark, American runner Fred Lorz jumped into the coach’s car after experiencing cramps. He took an 11-mile ride waving at runners and spectators before jumping out of the car and finishing the race on foot.
When he crossed the finish line, the crowd cheered the ‘American winner.’ Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed the winner’s wreath on Lorz’s head before someone informed her of his cheating.
Lorz, to his credit, claimed that he never intended to accept the medal and that he only finished for a joke!
The eventual winner of the marathon was another American called Thomas Hicks. He had been assisted by his two handlers in the latter stages of the marathon. They fed him strychnine and egg whites to stimulate him. At the time there were no rules about performance-enhancing drugs so Hicks was not disqualified.
The carnage of the 1904 marathon was so embarrassing to the International Olympic Committee that they nearly canceled the race in future Olympics.
1908 London Olympics
This was to be the fourth Olympic marathon ever run and it would go down in history as the first marathon to be 26.2 miles in length.
Up until this point, marathon race lengths had been set at ‘about 25 miles in length.’ The wording gave organizers some leeway to account for the lay of the town or city in which the marathon was being staged.
The organisers of the London Olympic marathon had already decided that they wanted the race to begin in Windsor Castle and end in the Olympic stadium in Shepherd’s Bush. This was a distance of 26 miles.
The IOC and the London organizing committee agreed that the marathon would be about 26 miles that year plus a lap of the stadium track.
After several setbacks and a change of organizers, the racecourse was finally decided. It would start on the East Lawns of Windsor Castle, away from interfering members of the public. The race would then go through Eton, Slough, Uxbridge, Langly, Ickenham, Harrow, Wembley, Wormwood Scrubs, to the White City stadium.
The plan was for the runners to enter the stadium via the royal entrance and do a lap of the stadium track before finishing in front of the royal box.
However, just weeks before the Olympics were due to open, organizers realized that the royal entrance didn’t connect to the stadium track.
A different entrance was chosen. One that was diagonally opposite the royal box. However, this ruined the plans for a lap of the stadium. Instead, it was decided that runners would run clockwise from the new entrance to the royal box. This distance ended up being 385 yards or .2 of a mile.
The race that year was won by an American called Johnny Hayes. He came first after an Italian runner named Dorando Pietri was disqualified for receiving help from the umpires in the stadium part of the race.
Pietri fell a total of 5 times in the stadium and was helped to his feet by umpires each time. He technically crossed the finish line first but was removed from the standings after the American team complained.
1924 Paris Olympics
The 1924 Paris Olympics were the last to be organized by Pierre de Coubertin before his retirement. These games are frequently cited as the first truly successful games because they gathered enormous amounts of support and attention from the public.
The international federations had established rules, codes, and regulations for their sports. This meant that the playing fields were literally and figuratively leveled for all competitors.
It was during this golden age of sports regulation that the marathon length was set as 26.2 miles. The 1924 Paris Olympic marathon was only the second race of that length, but the International Association of Athletic Federations decided, in their wisdom, that 26.2 miles was the right length.
Every marathon run from that point onward has been 26.2 miles long. Marathon runners the world round curse that extra .2 miles which seems like the longest distance of the whole race!
The marathon race has a mythic origin in ancient Greece with the story of a messenger running himself to death to deliver good news.
It was the kind of story the early Olympic organizers loved involving a person dedicating everything, even their life, to the sport.
As the only road running event in the Olympics, the Marathon has naturally found itself in the spotlight year after year. That increased scrutiny no doubt led to the standardization of the race length.