A Brief (and Surprising) History of the Marathon

Jennifer Purdie
by Jennifer Purdie
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A Brief (and Surprising) History of the Marathon

Most marathoners are familiar with this infamous, legendary tale: The first marathon happened when the soldier Pheidippides ran from near Marathon, Greece, to Athens in 490 B.C. He ran approximately 25 miles to announce the defeat of the Persians to the citizens of Athens. He delivered the message — and then died right after.

The story actually starts a couple of days earlier. When the Persians arrived at Marathon, Pheidippides was sent to Sparta to ask for help. He ran approximately 150 miles in two days. Then he ran the last 25 miles from the battlefield to Athens, most likely in full, heavy armor. This better explains his death.

Now every September a Spartathlon takes place in Greece to commemorate Pheidippides’ trek. This ultra-distance marathon covers 246 kilometers (nearly 153 miles) from Athens to Sparta, with a 36-hour cut-off.


Despite its tragic beginnings, the marathon distance has lived on, and the inaugural race happened at the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, organized the race course from the Marathon Bridge to Olympic Stadium — a distance that covered 24.85 miles. Out of 25 participants, only nine runners made it to the finish line. The winner, Spiridon Louis, won the race in a swift time of 2:58. While you’ll find (fast) age groupers completing a marathon in this time today, this accomplishment was before the advancements of nutrition and proper running gear.


Throughout the next few Olympic Games, the official marathon distance wavered a touch, but all courses were close to the original 24.85 miles. In the 1908 London Olympics, the course ran from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium — a distance of 26 miles. To allow runners to pass the royal family’s box inside the stadium, the organizer decided to add an additional 385 yards. And thus was the first race with the uneven 26.2-mile distance. It took an additional 13 years for this mileage to become the official marathon distance.


Since its humble Olympic origins, the marathon distance continued to slowly grow until the 1970s, when a running mania began to take shape. “This running boom turned into a real pandemic phenomenon, and many media analysts attributed this to Frank Shorter winning the Olympic marathon in Munich in 1972, which was widely televised,” says Nicholas Romanov, PhD, author of several books on endurance running, includingThe Running Revolution: How to Run Faster, Farther, and Injury-Free—for Life.”

Also in 1972, the Boston Marathon became the first major race to allow women to officially enter. (Women were running marathons, although as bandits.) In 1966, Roberta Gibb jumped into the Boston Marathon as a unofficial registrant and the following year, Kathrine Switzer, author ofMarathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s Sports,” registered for the race as K.V. Switzer. Boston race officials allowed her to compete, not knowing she was female.

In 1974, two years after women were allowed to enter marathons, Switzer won the New York City Marathon. Of her pioneering ways, Switzer has been quoted as saying: “I could feel my anger dissipating as the miles went by — you can’t run and stay mad.”


During the 1980s, the number of races and participants increased dramatically. According to Running USA, approximately 25,000 participants finished a marathon in 1976. In 1980, the number had increased to 143,000. By 1990, the number had swelled to an astonishing 224,000 — a growth of nearly 800% in 14 years.

This running evolution is due to several tipping points. “One of these was that race organizers got financially interested, and it became big business in Boston, New York, Chicago and so on, attracting lots of sponsors and people who travel to these races,” says Romanov. And in 1984, the International Olympic Committee included a women’s marathon in the Los Angeles Olympic Games. The first winner was American Joan Benoit Samuelson. This exposed more women to the sport and helped amplify the total number of participants.

Another tipping point was the advent of race purses. “On June 28, 1981, in Portland, Oregon, professional races took off with substantial prize money, which later on put an end the ambiguous rule of amateur athletes and allowed a runner to be a professional and make a living from running,” says Romanov. This piqued the interest of runners living in developing countries. A podium finish could transform their standard of living.


With no signs of slowing, the marathon is now a part of American culture and remains a popular bucket list item for runners. Crowds of spectators line the streets each year during the World Marathon Majors like Boston, Chicago and New York — and these are grueling races. Competition just to receive entry is fierce. To run Boston, you must qualify via a challenging finish time based on your age. Other World Marathon Majors offer an entrance via a lottery system or a qualifying time from a previous marathon.


Romanov has seen the running boom move to Asia, particularly to China. “Some statistics even show that every year the number of participants in races there increases by 300%, and this rate is not reducing,” he says.”

That sounds like runners should feel optimistic about the marathon’s future, even if it means potentially tougher qualifying times for Boston and more competition.

About the Author

Jennifer Purdie
Jennifer Purdie

Jennifer is a Southern California-based freelance writer who covers topics such as health, fitness, lifestyle and travel for both national and regional publications. She runs marathons across the world and is an Ironman finisher. She is also a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. You can follow her on Twitter @jenpurdie.


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