The History of The Marathon – Tracing Its Roots and Evolution Through Time

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Cross Training For Runners
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David Dack

Curious about the marathon and want to know more about its origin? Then you’ve come to the right place.

The marathon is often hailed as one of the most iconic and grueling distances in the realm of running.  In fact, this event holds profound significance both in history and today’s world.

The marathon’s origins can be traced back to ancient Greece, where it was an integral part of the Olympic Games.  Today the event stands as a symbol of human endurance, determination, and the relentless pursuit of excellence.

But what’s the story behind it? And how did a running spectacle managed to become an icon? That’s where today’s post comes in handy.

In this article, I’ll spill the beans on the first marathon, the evolution of the distance, and so much more.

Sounds like a good idea?

Let’s roll in.

The First Olympics

The marathon originated as a blend of history and myth, tracing back to the first Olympics. Initially, the marathon distance was around 25 miles, following a path from Marathon to Athens. This distance was both challenging and symbolic, forming a backdrop for legendary athletic feats.

The Myth

Let’s take a quick jog down memory lane to where it all began – the story behind the marathon. Picture this: it’s 790 B.C. in Marathon, Greece. There’s a huge battle going on between the Greeks and Persians, and the Greeks, led by General Miltiades, just won a big one. But here’s the catch – they had to let Athens know ASAP.

Enter our hero, Pheidippides. This guy was more than just a messenger; he was on a mission. With nothing but pure adrenaline and determination, he ran non-stop from the battlefield to Athens – that’s about 25 miles! Imagine doing that after a battle, no breaks, just go, go, go.

And when he finally made it, he burst out with “nenikēkamen!” (that’s ancient Greek for “we’ve won!”) before he literally collapsed from exhaustion and died on the spot. Talk about giving it your all!

Fast forward to 1896, the first modern Olympics. They decided to set the marathon distance to honor Pheidippides’ legendary run. That’s how our 25-mile (later 26.2 miles) race was born, paying tribute to that incredible endurance and spirit.

The Mythical Footsteps of Pheidippides: Legend vs. History

The story of Pheidippides and his legendary marathon has become a cornerstone in running culture. However, the blending of myth and history in this tale raises questions about its accuracy.

When we turn to historical records, though, the picture becomes less clear. The earliest account of the Battle of Marathon by Herodotus, a historian from that era, doesn’t mention a marathon-length run or the dramatic death of Pheidippides. It’s only in later historical writings, by authors like Plutarch and Lucian, that we find the narrative of Pheidippides’ long-distance run.

This discrepancy between legend and historical record creates an intriguing mix of fact and fiction surrounding the origins of the marathon. While the true story may be less dramatic than the legend, the spirit of Pheidippides’ journey continues to inspire runners worldwide.

The Marathon Nowadays

The marathon as we know it kicked off in Athens in 1896 during the first Olympic Games. The route covered about 25 miles (40 kilometers), starting from the historic Marathon Bridge and ending at the magnificent Olympic Stadium in Athens.

This, as you can tell, was a significant nod to Greek history and the legend of Pheidippides. This inaugural event in Athens was aimed at reviving the ancient Greek spirit, and the marathon perfectly captured this essence.

At the starting line stood 25 runners, each ready to test their limits. The sound of the starting gun set them off on a journey of endurance, pushing their bodies and minds to the extreme.

In that first Olympic marathon, nine athletes successfully completed the race. Among them was a local Greek water-carrier, Spyridon Louis, who became an overnight legend. His victory was not just for Greece, but it resonated across the marathon world.

The Changing Distance of The Marathon

After its debut in 1896, the marathon’s distance varied in the ensuing Olympic Games, reflecting the principle that the exact length wasn’t as important as ensuring all participants ran the same course.

In the 1900 Paris Olympics, the marathon’s distance was slightly increased to about 25.02 miles (40.2 kilometers). This change was mainly to accommodate the race’s start from the outskirts of Paris, specifically from the historic grounds of Versailles, adding a bit of extra length to the course.

The 1904 St. Louis Olympics presented another noteworthy chapter in marathon history. The race again spanned approximately 24.85 miles (40 kilometers), but this time runners faced additional challenges. The hot and dusty conditions of the route made the race particularly grueling, adding a layer of difficulty beyond the distance itself.

The 1908 London Olympics: The Birth of the Modern Marathon Distance

The 1908 London Olympics brought a significant change to marathon history, setting the official distance at 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers). This change was influenced by the British royal family’s involvement and the desire to create a memorable event.

Let me explain.

The marathon route was designed to start from Windsor Castle and finish at the Olympic Stadium, right in front of the royal box. The course stretched from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium, covering 26 miles. To cater to the royal family’s request, an additional 1.2 miles (1.946 kilometers) was included, starting from the Castle.

But there’s an interesting twist. The organizers added yet another 385 yards to the finish line, specifically to ensure it ended in front of the royal box. This change was made to delight the royal family and add an element of spectacle to the event.

As the runners pushed through this extended course, the atmosphere was charged with excitement. The cry of “God Save The Queen” resonated, adding a regal touch to the final stretch. This moment in the 1908 Olympics didn’t just set the marathon distance; it also left a lasting impact on the tradition and spirit of marathon running, remembered and celebrated by runners to this day.

Nowadays, marathon events take place virtually everywhere on the planet, from the North Pole, the Amazon, the Sahara to the Great Wall of China.

There are 100’s of organized marathons around the globe each year, with roughly 400,000 marathon finishers in the US alone.

The Conclusion

Whether you’re a seasoned marathoner or dreaming of completing your first 26.2 miles, remember: the marathon is a journey of the body, mind, and soul.

It’s a testament to what we can achieve when we dare to test our limits and run towards our dreams. In the end, every marathon is a celebration of life, resilience, and the unbreakable bonds that connect us all. So, here’s to the marathon – a race that continues to inspire and unite us, mile after mile, year after year.

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