The History of the Marathon

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When you run a marathon you become part of a living history.

Crossing the finish line connects you to those who have endured the toughness of marathon training before you.

Over 500,000 people will run a marathon in the US alone this year.

Here is the history of how our sport came to be.


The history of the marathon begins with the soldier Pheidippides. Legend has it that he ran from a battlefield at the site of the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens in 490 B.C a distance of around 25 miles. After Pheidippides delivered the momentous message “Niki!” (“victory”), he collapsed and died. From this auspicious start the marathon was borne into history and many people have been inspired.

First Olympic Marathon

When the first modern Olympic games were held in 1896 in Greece the legend of Pheidippides was revived by a 24.85 mile (40,000 meters) run from Marathon Bridge to the Olympic stadium in Athens. Traditionally the final event in the Olympics, the first organized marathon on April 10, 1896 was especially important to all Greeks as hosts of the event. Spiridon Louis, a Greek postal worker, crossed the finish line a full seven minutes ahead of the pack. His time was 2 hours, 58 minutes, 50 seconds for the 40 kilometer distance, beating the other 16 participants.

The Change to 26.2

At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, the marathon distance was changed to 26.2 miles (or 42k) to cover the ground from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium, with the 2.2 miles added on so the race could finish in front of royal family’s viewing box. This added two miles to the course, and is the origin of the Marathon tradition of shouting “God save the Queen!” as mile marker 24 is passed.

The Boston Marathon

The oldest standing marathon is the Boston Marathon which began in 1897 with 15 competitors. Now the field of marathoners is so vast that Boston limits its entry to those who meet qualifying times and people who run for specific charities.

Women were not allowed to officially participate in long distance running for many more years. It was thought to be too physically strenuous.

In 1966 Roberta Gibb unofficially completed the Boston Marathon. She hid in the bushes until most of the field of runners had passed and then jumped into the race. She was later recognized as the women’s winner for 1966, 67, and 68.

Katherine Switzer entered Boston in 1967 as K. Switzer, but when race director Jock Semple saw her running he tried to physically eject her from the race. Her boyfriend was able to block Semple out of the way and Switzer finished in 4:20. Switzer later said,

“The idea of running long distance was always considered very questionable for women because an arduous activity would mean that you were going to get big legs, grow a mustache and hair on your chest and your uterus was going to fall out.”

She’s gone on to become a spokesperson for running, has written a book, and has finished at least 35 marathons with a PR of 2:51.

World Records

The current world record time for men over the distance is 2 hours 3 minutes and 38 seconds, set in the Berlin Marathon by Patrick Makau of Kenya on September 25, 2011. The world record for women was set by Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain in the London Marathon on April 13, 2003, in 2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds.

On April 18, 2011, Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya ran the fastest marathon ever in a time of 2 hours 3 minutes 2 seconds at the 2011 Boston Marathon, but the mark will not be recognized as a world record since the Boston course fails the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation) criteria for world record eligibility (due to the elevation drop and point to point measurements).

The first person dared to take on the marathon distance thousands of years ago. This distance still beckons runners of every level. A book could be written about all the people who’ve taken their challenging circumstances in stride and run marathons. We all come to the marathon with different backgrounds, goals and motivating factors yet we’re united in a common purpose.

One Response to The History of the Marathon

  1. Angie April 21, 2012 at 11:32 am #

    A MTA listener just told me about a site where you can search marathon times and records worldwide. I found my own name on the list- how cool is that! Thanks for this great link Chad.

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