The Origins of Marathons

If you’ve ever thought that 42.2 kilometres, or 26.2 miles, seems like a bit of an arbitrary number, you’re not alone. However, it’s no coincidence that a marathon is exactly that distance. Arguably the most practised running race formats all over the world, the marathon as we know it today has its origins many, many years ago.

Dating back to ancient Greece, the marathon actually comes with a fascinating story, one that has yet to be forgotten.

What’s the Story Behind the Modern Marathon?

Legend has it that there was an ancient Greek messenger, Pheidippides, who was sent to deliver an important message from Marathon to Athens. The kicker, however, is that he had to so on foot – of course, because it was ancient Greece, covering a distance of round about 40 kilometres.

The message he was sent to deliver was that there had been a Greek victory over an invading Persian army. Most urgently, he was sent to let his fellow Greek countrymen in the capital know that the Persians were on their way to Athens. Pheidippides managed to complete the momentous journey on foot and share the news of the Greek victory and incoming Persians.

Unfortunately for Pheidippides, however, he was unable to do much more than deliver the message. Shortly after arriving in Athens, he collapsed, apparently from sheer exhaustion, and died right there and then.

In his honour, the next official Olympics Games’ marathon was set to cover 40 kilometres. This was in 1986, with the first known Olympic Games being held in 776 BC. These dates are very far apart, but neither are close to the time when you could enjoy NZ mobile pokies like you can today.

Why 42.2 Kilometres Rather Than 40 Kilometres?

For the next ten odd years, the Olympic marathon was set at roughly 40 kilometres, varying slightly depending on the route and where it was held. It was only in 1908 that the modern distance was established.

The story goes that while the games were being hosted by the British in London, the race was extended slightly in order to be able to accommodate the royal family. Queen Alexander, the reigning monarch at the time, supposedly made an official request that the race started on the lawns of Windsor Castle and end right in front of the British Royal Box at the Olympic Stadium.

Some accounts purport that the reason for the request of the starting point was so that the youngest royals would be able to watch from the window of their nursery. The reason for the finishing point was simply so that the British royals would get the best view during their home Olympic Games.

The distance that was set for the race before the amendments made by the Queen was about 40km, as normal. However, her requests added on a little bit of distance – 2.2 kilometres, to be precise.

Thus, the first ever modern marathon was run in 1908 in London. This rather arbitrary distance became a tradition that was adhered to over the following years, although nobody knows exactly why. Therefore, from then onwards, the distance of marathons was officially 42.2 kilometres.

This entry was posted in History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.