Tag Archives: marathon

A Long, Long Way to Run

Replenishing fluids at Mile 25, Central Park

It’s almost marathon season again, so if you’re planning to enter any races, you might want to start training now.  While you’re plodding along, mile after dreary mile, you can take your mind off your discomfort by thinking about fascinating marathon facts like these…

The name is derived from a battle in 490 B.C. between the Athenians and Persians at a Greek village called Marathon.  In one version of the story, the Athenians sent a messenger to Sparta to request help in the upcoming battle.

The more well-known myth, bolstered by a Robert Browning poem, is that the messenger Pheidippides (Fy-DIP-eh-deez) ran from Marathon back to Athens with the news that the army of Athens had been victorious.  Supposedly Pheidippides burst into a council meeting, gasped, “Hey, we won!” or words to that effect, and then dropped dead.  Try not to think of that dying part while you’re training.

Depending on which route a runner takes, the distance from Marathon to Athens is between 24 and 26 miles.  So how did the official distance for today’s marathon races get fixed at 26 miles 385 yards?  Obviously the answer is not “Because it’s a nice round number.”

Marathons were run at various distances — 40 Km (24.85 miles) in the 1896 Olympics, for instance — until 1921, when the International Association of Athletic Federations adopted the 26-mile 385-yard standard.  That was based on the distance used for the marathon in the 1908 Olympic Games in London.

For that event, the race started at Windsor Castle; according to some sources, that was done so that the Princess of Wales and her offspring could watch from their window in the Royal Nursery.  Officials intended the race to cover approximately 25 miles, but several detours had to be made due to trolley tracks and cobblestones and other obstacles on the proposed course.

The plan all along was that the race would end in the stadium at Shepherd’s Bush, with the competitors crossing the finish line right in front of the Royal Box. Shortly before the Olympics began, though, someone noticed a flaw in the plan:  The runners wouldn’t be able to use the Royal Entrance into Great White City Stadium because the opening wasn’t at ground level.  It was raised so that their Royal Majesties could step out of their carriages more easily.

It was agreed that the runners probably wouldn’t be able to leap up to the Royal Entrance, so the path was amended again, with the track winding around to another stadium entrance.  The length of the course eventually became — right, you’re way ahead of me.

The race itself was quite dramatic:  An Italian runner, Dorando Pietri, staggered into the stadium well ahead of the other racers.  He was exhausted, though, and  turned the wrong way on the revised course, then stumbled and fell several times.  He was helped across the finish line by officials, which didn’t seem fair to the second-place finisher, American Johnny Hayes.  Pietri was eventually disqualified and Hayes was awarded the gold medal.

They both became celebrities, ran a couple of subsequent match races, and generally popularized long-distance running.  Their famous race in the 1908 Olympics helped lock in the arbitrary distance of 26 miles 385 yards.

So that’s something to think about while you’re training, and maybe you can also muse about how your blisters wouldn’t be as bad if Marathon had been, oh, 20 miles closer to Athens.  Or if they’d had cell phones in 490 B.C.