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.
THE MARATHON RACE DEBUT
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.
HOW 26.2 CAME TO BE
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.
THE START OF THE RUNNING BOOM: 1970s
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, including “The Running Revolution: How to Run Faster, Farther, and Injury-Free—for Life.”