I was reading in the local news about a half-marathon that took place the previous weekend. I didn’t know they ran only half the distance. In fact, I don’t even know why they run that long. Well, it was time for me to get educated on the subject!
What was the First Marathon?
Looking at the history of the race, it seems that there’s a layer of a myth that has been added to the real story. Let’s start with the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens—more about the revival of the Olympics in this article.
A French philologist by the name of Michel Bréal is responsible for the marathon’s name and length. Bréal was a significant contributor to the development of the marathon as we know it today in the late 19th century.
Bréal took an active part in the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) inaugural conference in the 1890s. This committee suggested that the ancient Olympic Games be revived as a series of international tournaments that would take place every four years and rotate among different nations. Despite the fact that Greece had been holding its own version of the Olympics for a while, the IOC aimed to formally establish the games as a multilateral contest between states.
The idea to incorporate a foot race was Bréal’s original contribution to the project. It was motivated by the legend of a Greek messenger who ran from the Marathon Plains to Pnyx, where the ancient Athenians conducted their important meetings. This suggested route was 40 kilometers, or 24.85 miles, long. See if we can organize a Marathon race at the Pnyx, Bréal suggested in a letter. It will taste old-fashioned.
Consequently, a marathon event was added to the schedule of the first modern Olympic Games, which were held in Athens in 1896. Spiridon Louis, a Greek runner, won the race after covering the iconic distance from Marathon to Pnyx.
The Legend of Pheidippides
Michel Bréal’s inspiration is the story of Pheidippides that goes like this. The Greek city-states, especially in Athens, and the Persian Empire engaged in battle at Marathon in 490 BCE. Around 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of Athens, on the Marathon Plain, the Persians had made their landing. Because they were greatly outnumbered, the Athenians had to turn to their allies in Sparta for support. Pheidippides was picked to send a message to the Spartans seeking their aid.
Pheidippides is said to have covered the 140 miles (225 kilometers) between Athens and Sparta on foot in just two days. It’s critical to note that there is a controversy on the historical authenticity of this tale because it is physically difficult and improbable to complete such a lengthy run in such a short amount of time. According to some historians, Pheidippides may have run a lesser distance, maybe from Athens to a nearby city called Platea, and later retellings of the event inflated the distance and pace.
Anyway, Pheidippides rushed from the Marathon battlefield to Athens, a distance of around 25 miles (40 kilometers), to bring word of the Greeks’ triumph over the Persians, according to the more frequently accepted version of events. The story ends with Pheidippides passing away from weariness after delivering the message.
Why is a marathon 26.2 miles now?
Following its debut, the 40-kilometer marathon distance was maintained for a number of Olympic Games. However, the 1908 London Olympics saw a huge change. Due respect for the British royal family was cited as the rationale for extending the marathon to 26.2 miles (42,195 kilometers).
The Olympics were being hosted by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in London that year, and it was important that spectators in the royal box could see the marathon race’s finish line. The racing track was therefore extended to suit the comfort of the royals. Despite appearing random at the time, this modification stuck and gave rise to the present marathon’s length.
The Marathon’s Further Evolutions
Marathons have been increasingly popular since the official marathon’s length became 26.2 miles. Boston hosted the country’s first marathon in 1897, and since the New York City Marathon first took place there in 1970, it has grown to become the biggest in the country.
Additionally, the race saw significant societal shifts. Women were not allowed to run marathons for many years. However, as women started to thrive in their own events in the 1970s, limitations on their participation were progressively eased. Additionally widening the sport, persons with impairments also found a place in marathon competitions.
Marathons are now staged in a variety of places across the globe, from the ancient route of the Great Wall of China to the icy landscapes of the North Pole. More than 1,100 marathons are held annually in the United States alone, drawing runners from all walks of life.
If you’re interested in more Olympic sports, I previously wrote about the invention of Golf and basketball. Also, while you were training, maybe you asked yourself who invented the treadmill, I wrote about it!