A Brief History of the Marathon
The marathon is something that the vast majority of people will never, ever, ever attempt. Most Casual Runners will not do so either. Let’s be honest, running 26.2 miles is simultaneously pretty much one the most awesome and dumbest things you can ever do. I had zero interest in running one myself, it just kind of happened, and then, before you knew it, l had run three of them.
Despite having run 3 marathons, I continue to be in awe of the challenge that this event presents. Make no mistake about it, every time someone crosses the finish line at a marathon, it IS a pretty big deal. It is a distance and a challenge that should be respected, not feared, but certainly respected.
26.2 miles…wait…what? Why 26.2 miles?
Honestly, that it is the dumbest distance one could conceive for a race. Why not just make it a round number? Was 26 miles not good enough? The only reason there are 3.1 mile races is because they are measured, not in miles, but in kilometers, and 3.1 miles (not a round number) is 5km (a round number). The same with the 10k (a round number), which is 6.2 miles (not a round number).
We will cut the half marathon some slack, because it’s odd 13.1 mile distance is half of the marathon’s similarly odd 26.2 miles. To understand why this is, and to more fully appreciate why the marathon should be respected, a brief look at the history of the marathon is in order. Again, this is a brief history. It is not meant to be completely comprehensive, but it is meant to be enjoyable, because it is kind of a fun story.
Yes, we are really going back 2500+ years, but bear with us. The ancient Greeks liked to fight, a lot. As the story goes, the Greeks won a significant battle near Marathon against the Persians. The Persians retreated into their boats, and the Greeks feared that they would sail onto Athens and stage an attack there. So, they selected Pheidippides to run (he had to hurry to beat the Persian ships) the 25 miles (or 21 miles, depending on which route he took), from Marathon to Athens to let the Athenians know that, if the Persians did show up, that the Greek army had won in Marathon and was still around to finish the job.
Again, as the story goes, Pheidippides successfully completed the journey, delivered his message, and then dropped dead on the spot. Yes folks, that’s right, the first person to ever attempt a marathon died. If that is not worthy of respect, I don’t know what is. It should also be something to keep in mind if you decide to enter a marathon without properly training for it (editor’s note: please, do not EVER toe the line at a marathon if you have not properly trained for it).
Ok, so we had to skip a lot of human history here, but, again, bear with us. A Frenchman by the name of Barron Pierre de Coubertin conceived of the brilliant idea to revive the ancient Olympic games and gather the children of the world together in a sporting festival to promote peace and unity, and with that the modern Olympics were born (Author’s confession: I love the Olympics, and I am doing my best not to turn this into a feature on the Olympics, but it is really difficult).
Amongst the many tributes to the ancient Greek traditions, de Coubertin insisted that a long distance running event be included in the modern Olympic program in celebration of Pheidippides’ famous (or infamous) journey. Thus, the first Olympic Marathon event, which only included male athletes, ran from Marathon to the Olympic Stadium in Athens, along the way following a rough approximation of what was believed to have been Pheidippides’ original course from 490 B.C. The modern course traveled a distance of 24.85 miles (there we go with those non-round numbers again! But it was 40,000 meters, so I guess that counts). Spiridon Louis, a Greek postal worker, became the first modern Olympic Marathon champion.
Following that first Olympic Marathon, there was no consensus as to what the official marathon distance should be, in fact, that would not be settled until 1921.
Inspired by the success of the 1896 Olympic Marathon, the first Boston Marathon was held, making it the world’s oldest annual marathon. The first Boston Marathon course was “just” 24.5 miles long.
The 1908 London Olympics would see the selection of a marathon course that began at Windsor Castle and finished inside White City Stadium. While the organizers originally sought a 25 mile race, the course design ended up being around 26 miles. But that was not quite long enough to reach the royal family’s viewing box inside the stadium. No, the finish line had to be pushed back an additional 385 yards in order to allow runners to finish in front of the royal family. This brought the course to 26.2 miles, which would eventually become the international marathon standard distance. So, every time you are running a marathon and you cross the 26 mile marker and realize that you still have another .2 miles to go, well, you can thank the British royal family. (I did not say that you can thank the Phoenicians; that is something different entirely).
Sadly you cannot look at history without revealing a little sexism, or, even more sadly, a lot of it. There was a time when it was widely believed that women could not physically run the marathon distance. In 1918, a Frenchwoman named Marie-Louise Ledru proved them all wrong, as she became the first known woman to complete 26.2 miles in an official race, the Tour de Paris Marathon. Still, ignorance would prevail and women would be excluded from marathons for several more decades.
Katherine Switzer became the first woman to “officially” run the Boston Marathon. However, organizers later stated that she only received a bib through an “oversight” and that her participation violated the rules. As it turns out, Bobbi Gibb had actually completed the race, unofficially, in 1958, and would later be recognized by race organizers for doing so.
The first New York City Marathon takes place with runners repeating loops around Central Park.
Frank Shorter captured the marathon gold medal at the Munich Olympics, and to this day is still the last American man to do so. It is believed that his victory helped spark an increase in enthusiasm for the sport of distance running in the United States, a spark that all Casual Runners are grateful for to this day. This year also saw the first official female entrants in the Boston Marathon.
It is believed that the first wheelchair division in an official marathon occurred in Toledo, Ohio in 1974. Aside from this being a great breakthrough for wheelchair athletes, Toledo is also where my brother and sister went to college, so it is nice to show some love to that city. It should be noted that the New York City Marathon banned wheelchair athletes in 1977, citing safety concerns, and they would not receive their own official division in that race again until 2000.
During the United States’ bicentennial year, the first Marine Corps Marathon took place in Washington, D.C. Indicative of the growing popularity of marathon events, the Chicago Marathon debuted the following year.
It took 88 years, but the Olympics finally included the women’s marathon in the Olympic program at the games of Los Angeles. Joan Benoit of the United States took home the gold medal. This is the last time an American won gold in any Olympic marathon.
The first Walt Disney World Marathon takes place in Florida with a mere 7,000 runners and, believe it or not, the focus was not on running in the 3 theme parks that existed at that time (the event debuted 5 years before Disney’s 4th Florida theme park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, opened).
When the Olympics returned to Athens in 2004, organizers replicated as much of the 1896 marathon course as they could, but some adjustments were needed as the course needed to be 26.2 miles long (remember, in 1896, the race was only 24.85 miles long), and rumor has it that the city may have changed a little over the course of 108 years.
Unthinkable tragedy occurs as terrorists detonate 2 bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing 3 spectators and injuring an estimated 264 others. Out of this tragedy, the great resilience of the human spirit was revealed, and the world witnessed wonderful acts of human bravery and compassion, and we all learned the true meaning of Boston Strong.
Mike Rigelsky completes his first marathon at the 2014 runDisney Walt Disney World Marathon. Official brother and fellow Casual Runner, Frank Rigelsky, also runs his first marathon, motivated in large part by not wanting his little brother to complete one before he did. Like I said, marathons are a big deal, and personal achievements should always be celebrated, even if they may not necessarily be historically significant.
What does the future have in store for the marathon event? Well, with more and more Casual Runners logging their first miles and eventually toeing the line at their first marathon every year, only time will tell. But one thing remains certain, the marathon is a big deal, and should be respected, honored, and celebrated.
If you want to see more of our great marathon coverage, check out our growing collection of marathon race reviews:
2014 runDisney Walt Disney World Marathon
2015 runDisney Walt Disney World Marathon
2016 runDisney Walt Disney World Marathon
2017 runDisney Walt Disney World Marathon
Enjoy the freedom of going wherever your feet, imagination, & determination take you!
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Enjoy the freedom of going wherever your feet, imagination, & determination take you!