Most likely, you already know that a marathon is around 26 miles long. To be precise, it’s 26.2188 miles or 26.2 as most round it off as.
That last .2 sounds so small, but marathon runners know it’s an extra few steps that add up!!! And maybe you’ve wondered why on Earth the race isn’t simply a round number. In fact, why isn’t it 20 miles or 25 miles?
Only a few of us know exactly what events led to this odd race distance. Interestingly, it all started more than 2000 years ago in Ancient Greece with a messenger by the name of Pheidippides.
Intrigued to know how it all began? Let’s dive into some history!
The Origin of Marathon: The Battle of Marathon
A Greek legend from 490 B.C. served as the basis for the marathon as a running event.
Marathon is a small Greek village that still exists today, with a population of roughly 7,000 people.
It was the site of the Battle of Marathon in ancient Greece, a massive confrontation between the Greeks and the invading Persians.
Despite being outnumbered by the Persians, the Greeks won the fight. This was a crucial win in their fight against the invaders.
According to legend, after the victorious battle, a Greek messenger named Pheidippides observed a Persian warship heading towards Athens. He saw this as an attempt by the Persians to rush to the Greek city and declare victory in the battle.
Pheidippides laid down his weapons and armor, and ran. He ran all the way to Athens without stopping so he could say that the Greeks had won the battle.
He fainted from sheer exhaustion shortly after declaring ‘victory’ to the gathered Greeks.
Several sources dispute the events of 490 BC, but the myth was popularized and became one of Ancient Greece’s most lasting, universally-told myths, and thus the legend was born.
Depending on whatever route you choose, the distance between Marathon and Athens is around 25 miles. But we all know that’s not the standard marathon length.
And wait, the Battle of Marathon happened more than 2500 years ago so how did it make its way to the modern times?
For that, we need to look at two other times in history, starting with the first modern Olympic Games held in 1896.
When Marathon Entered Modern Times: The First Modern Olympic Games 1896
The legend of Pheidippides has its place in Greek myth and history, but the ancient Greeks didn’t have an official marathon in the same sense that we do today. That all started in 1896.
In fact, the ancient Greek Olympic games from 2000 years ago were the inspiration for the first modern Olympic games, which were held in Athens in that year. The goal was to bring together the best and strongest athletes from all over the world for a global event.
When the modern Olympics began in 1896, the organizers intended to put one event in the spotlight that would encapsulate the spirit of the Ancient Games.
To that end, Michel Bréal, a French philologist, recommended to Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, that the games emphasize the “character of Antiquity.”
His thought was that they might do this by introducing a long-distance race that mirrored Pheidippides’ journey over two thousand years ago.
And, well, the Olympic organizing committee loved it.
They picked the same route that the messenger had supposedly taken 2400 years before, and chose to call the event after the town where it all began. As a result, the modern marathon was born.
And so, in 1896, the first Olympic Marathon was held in Athens. Runners set out from the Marathon Bridge and finished at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, for a total distance of around 25 miles or 40 kilometers.
So even then, it wasn’t the 26.2 miles we now know as the standard marathon length. Interestingly, only 9 of the 25 athletes made it to the finish line with Spyridon Louis finishing first. He ran the nearly 25-mile distance in 2 hours, 58 minutes, and 50 seconds.
The Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 were warmly accepted and became a staple, appearing every four years in several major cities throughout the world.
The marathon became a mainstay of the Olympics, though the marathon length varied somewhat from event to event, always remaining around the 25-mile mark.
It wasn’t until the London 1908 Olympics that the final distance was 26.2 miles for the first time, and there was an interesting reason for that.
When Marathon Became 26.2 Miles: The 1908 London Olympic Games
Originally, the organizers of the 1908 Olympic Games in London intended a 26-mile course from Windsor Castle to the entrance of the White City Stadium.
However, the royal family, specifically Queen Alexandra, is claimed to have requested that the marathon begin on the lawn of Windsor Castle, allowing the royal children to watch from their nursery. The race was then scheduled to end in front of the royal box at the Olympic Stadium at the time.
This addition at the request of the Royal added 385 yards bringing the entire length of the race to 26.2188 miles, or 26.2 miles as it is often known.
So, on the last day of the 1908 London Olympics, the first-ever 26.2 mile marathon was held, and it wasn’t without controversy!
Dorando Pietri of Italy entered the Olympic Stadium first and was clearly exhausted. He famously collapsed multiple times and even ran in the wrong direction! He had to be helped by two medics before he crossed the finish line first.
Many competitors complained about how Pietri was unfairly supported and so the first place when to American Johnny Hayes! He even set an Olympic record with a time of 2 hours, 55 minutes, and 18.4 seconds.
But that was the first time it happened, so when was it set as the standard distance of a marathon? For that, let’s look at what happened in 1921.
When Marathon was Standardized to 26.2 Miles
The marathon’s standard distance was established in May 1921 by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF).
Even though technically six different marathon distances were used in the first seven Olympic Games ranging from 24.85 to 26.56 miles, the IAAF settled on the 26 miles and 385 yards used at the 1908 London Olympics.
They most likely chose the distance used at the 1908 Olympics because many people during that time believed it was one of the best races ever!
With Johnny Hayes’ victory, the public became much more aware of marathons which ultimately kicked off the ‘Marathon Mania’ of the 20th century.
Marathons in the 21st Century
Marathons are now not just limited to the Olympic games but are held around the world from the historic Boston Marathon to the Great Wall Marathon in China.
Currently, the largest marathon races globally are known as ‘the big 6’, or the world majors, three of which take place in the United States. They include the Boston Marathon, London Marathon, Berlin Marathon, Tokyo Marathon, New York City Marathon, and Chicago Marathon.
In fact, completing all of the World Majors earns you a Six Star finisher medal. It’s a small group of runners who have completed them, due to the races being lotteries!
And yes, regardless of where they’re held in the world, they’re always 26.2188 miles, or 42.195 kilometers long!
Every year, there are hundreds of organized marathons held all over the world, with about 400,000 marathon finishers in the US alone.
Eliud Kipchoge, a Kenyan runner, is currently the marathon world record holder. He finished the 2022 Berlin Marathon in 2:01:09, beating his own previous world record from 2018 by 30 seconds. And Brigid Kosgei, also a Kenyan runner, set the women’s world record in 2019 when she ran the Chicago Marathon in 2:14:04.
If you’re ready to take up that challenge too, I recommend checking out my marathon training plans. Whether you’re or beginner or intermediate, I’m sure you’ll find the perfect training schedule that’ll fit your current fitness level and goal!
Well, hopefully, that fun little history answered all your questions! But you can also learn more about when was running invented or what an ultramarathon exactly is!
Looking for more Marathon Information?
- What’s a good marathon time?
- How to pick your first marathon
- What to wear for a marathon
- Marathon Pace Chart
- What is the Fastest Mile Ever Ran
I’ve got a ton of marathon resources for you as a new runner, as well as the best free Couch to Marathon plan you can start using today!
So let’s get running!
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