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Why a Marathon is 26.2 Miles — and Other Facts About the Ancient Footrace

There’s no greater runner’s high than the feeling of crossing a marathon finish line — a culmination of months of training and dedication to put the human body through a feat that it’s not exactly made to do. Even so, a growing number of people accomplish the 26.2-mile race each year, with 1.1 million runners crossing the finish line in 2018.

While the coronavirus pandemic put a pause on large-scale in-person races in 2020, the act of running never stopped. In fact, average runners increased their activity by 117% and moderate runners by 55%. Marathon racing officially came back in 2021, with the first of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors, the Berlin Marathon, taking place on September 26.

The seemingly arbitrary distance of 26.2 miles has become a goal for so many who pound the pavement, so here we take a look at how the tradition began.

Ancient Greek Roots

 1896 Athens Olympic stadium full of people cheering marathon runners.
Credit: Hulton Archive/ Illustrated London News via Getty Images

According to the legend, it all started during the Greco-Persian War’s Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE when a messenger from Athens ran from the city of Marathon back home to relay the news of the Persian defeat. After completing the distance of about 25 miles, he reportedly uttered, “Rejoice, we conquer!” and then collapsed and died from the exhaustion of the run.

Later, the story was combined with another tale of a messenger from Greece named Pheidippides, who ran from Athens to Sparta before fighting began. Whatever the exact inspiration was, the first organized, modern long-distance running race was held nearly 2,000 years later at the 1896 Olympics in Athens to commemorate the distance that the messenger ran. And appropriately, it was a Greek runner named Spyridon Louis who won the inaugural Olympic marathon medal.

Marathons Make Their Way to the U.S.

Joe Smith crossed the finish line as spectators watch on both sides the 1942 Boston Marathon.
Credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

The first U.S. Olympic team manager John Graham was so taken by that first Olympic marathon that he decided to bring it back to the U.S, where he was a member of the Boston Athletic Association. Working with businessperson Herbert Holton, Graham sketched out various routes through Beantown until they came up with a 24.5-mile course from Ashland’s Metcalf’s Mill to Boston’s Irvington Oval, near where Copley Square is now.

The very next year, the first Boston Marathon was held on April 19, 1897, with New York’s John McDermott crossing the finish first out of the 15 participants with a 2:55:10 time. Not only did that land him a spot in history, but it also established the Massachusetts race as one of the most essential marathons in the world, which it continues to be to this day.

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon nowadays, known in the running world as BQ (“Boston Qualifying”), is a right of passage for many runners since it's the only of the major races to require a minimum time at another eligible race for most of its spots (a small number are reserved for those running for a charity).

A Royal Adjustment

The start of the Marathon at Windsor Castle during the Olympic Games with runners and spectators.
Credit: Henry Guttmann Collection/ Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Marathon distances at the next few Olympics stayed close to 25 miles, but soon there was a slight adjustment. When the Olympics were held in London in 1908, the route was set to start at the lawn of Windsor Castle and end at the Royal Box in the stadium, which was the distance of 26 miles and 385 yards, or 26.2 miles. Queen Alexandra wanted some of the young royals to be able to see the race from their nursery window, which accounted for the extra distance.  

But the Olympic distance kept wavering in those next few years, sometimes closer to 25 miles and other times past 26 miles. Eventually, the British Olympic Committee's distance of 26.2 became the standard — it was officially adopted as the marathon distance by 1921 and became the Olympic distance starting in 1924

While no exact reason has been traced as to why the extra 0.2 miles was rolled into the race, it has stuck for the last 101 years. The last fraction of a mile has had a major effect on the race itself. Take the Boston Marathon in 2011 for example, when American Des Linden and Kenyan Caroline Kilel went head-to-head with a mad dash in that final stretch, with Linden falling into second place by two seconds.

All Races Weren’t Created Equal

Bobbi Gibb, crosses the finish line during the 120th Boston Marathon on April 18, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Credit: Maddie Meyer via Getty Images

While today men and women compete side by side, the sport has long been reserved for men for a large part of its history. In fact, women running the road race — at the same distance as men — is a shockingly recent phenomenon.

Roberta Gibb was the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon in 1966 — but she technically did it off the books without a race number, called a bib. She continued to do so through 1968, hiding in the bushes near the start line until the race began. Kathrine Switzer also entered in 1967, but didn’t exactly identify herself as a female runner  — she disguised her first name as “K.V.” — and got a race bib. Even so, as she started running several race officials attempted to pull her off the course.

In 1972, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) allowed women to register for sanctioned marathons. That year, eight women ran the Boston Marathon and finished, and Nina Kuscsik emerged the winner in 3:10:26.

Still, it wasn’t until the 1984 Olympics that women were finally able to enter the Games and race in the marathon.

Wide World of Marathons

Athletes run past vineyards near Pauillac, during the 30th Marathon du Medoc, a 26-mile (42.2km) circuit in the Medoc wine region near Bordeaux, France
Credit: NICOLAS TUCAT/ AFP via Getty Images

As the lust for marathon running spread around the globe, major cities hopped on board. New York City launched its first race in 1970 with a course that lapped around Central Park four times, as opposed to today’s course which goes through all five boroughs of the city. Nina Kuscsik made an appearance again, and was the only female of the 127 racers during that inaugural race, but had to drop out in mile 14 because of stomach issues. She went on to win it in 1972 and 1974.

To round out the Abbott World Marathon Majors, Berlin launched its race in 1974, Chicago in 1977, London in 1981, and Tokyo in 2007. But by no means were those the only marathons on the planet. Some races are measured in experience as much as they are in distance, like the Great Wall Marathon in China on the largest manmade structure, the Marathon du Médoc in France with stops for wine tastings, the Everest Marathon in Nepal known as the world’s highest elevation race, and the Walt Disney World Marathon in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, through the Orlando theme park.

But perhaps the most extreme of them all is the World Marathon Challenge, in which runners complete seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. To date, 164 people have completed the feat — 118 men and 46 women.

Featured Image Credit: sportpoin/ iStock