Why Is a Marathon 26.2 Miles? The History From Ancient Greece to Today

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Ever wondered what makes 26.2 miles the magic marathon number? It might seem like an obscure distance, but there’s history behind it… And it leads back to ancient Greece.

There’s no doubt 26.2 miles is a long way. Many people don’t even like driving that far! Even those with multiple marathons feel daunted by the grueling distance.

Let’s look into why a marathon is a marathon. And the next time you run one, remember the race’s origin story!

Why Is a Marathon 26.2 Miles?

It might seem like a random number, but there’s history behind the marathon’s 26.2 miles. It starts back in ancient Greece in 490 BC.

The Legend of Pheidippides: Running From Marathon to Athens

Marathon is also the name of a city in Greece. Yes, the same event that gave the marathon its distance also christened it with its name! The hero of the story is Pheidippides—a member of the Greek military who served as a messenger.

In 490 BC, the Athenian army battled with the Persians. The Greeks were vastly outnumbered, and Pheidippides ran back and forth between Athens and Sparta to round up extra troops. According to legend, he covered 153 miles in 36 hours—if you think a marathon is bad, imagine running that!

But that’s not where the marathon distance comes from. When the Athenians finally conquered the Persians, legend says that Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens—a total of 40 kilometers, or 25 to 26 miles—to deliver the news of victory.

History says that after announcing that his army had won the Battle of Marathon, Pheidippides collapsed and died from exhaustion.

The modern-day marathon chose the distance as a way of honoring the courageous runner.

The Revival: The Modern Olympics

The first modern Olympic Games was held in 1896, based on the ancient Greek Olympics from millennia ago. Its goal was to bring together the best athletes worldwide for a huge global event.

To put the event in the spotlight, organizers wanted to highlight one specific athletic event that they felt would encompass the spirit of the Ancient Greek games. Pheidippides’ memorable run stood out.

The first official modern marathon, at the 1896 Athens Olympics, followed the same route the messenger ran in 490 BC. At the time, the route measured around 25 miles.

The “major event” became a staple in every Olympics after. But it was only in 1908 that the first 26.2-mile marathon happened.

The 1908 London Olympics: A Race Fit for Royalty

The Olympic Games were held in London in 1908. The marathon event was set to begin at Windsor Castle and run for 26 miles, ending at the White City Stadium’s entrance.

However, history says that Queen Alexandra requested a slight change. She asked that the marathon begin on the lawn of Windsor Castle, rather than outside the entrance so the royal children could watch from inside their nursery.

This stretched the race to just over 26.2 miles in total. And the monarch requesting a little extra distance wasn’t even the most controversial thing about the race!

The winner, Italian athlete Dorando Pietri, was exhausted when he arrived at the finish and had to be helped by medics before crossing the line.

This caused an uproar amongst other competitors, who felt that the Italian was unfairly supported as he crossed the line. So, the victory was given instead to Johnny Hayes, an American runner.

How the 26.2 Mile Standard Was Set in Stone

Between 1896 and 1921, six different marathon distances were used, although they all varied only slightly. So why is a marathon 26.2 miles instead of something more uniform?

In 1921, the International Amateur Athletic Federation came together to decide on a set distance, once and for all.

While the Queen’s 1908 race-extension request was a once-off event, the committee eventually settled on 26.2 miles as the final marathon distance. The 1908 marathon was well-known as one of the most exciting Olympic races, so the distance was selected to become the official marathon length.

The Legacy of the 26.2 Mile Standard

Once the official marathon distance had been chosen, marathon culture took off. And it hasn’t slowed yet! Here are some of the exciting things that came from those original days of marathons.

The Rise of Marathon Culture

Between Johnny Hayes’ controversial victory and the official announcement of a set distance for the marathon event, the race was thrown into the spotlight.

Athletes and non-athletes developed a much larger interest in the now-26.2-mile marathon event, and its history, both ancient and recent, made it that much more interesting.

Cities across the world began hosting marathons. Runners were excited for a new distance, especially one with so much history behind it. And non-runners were fascinated by watching athletes compete to finish such a long race.

A Symbol of Human Achievement

Considering the marathon was a long distance, completing it became a symbol of human achievement. Marathon winners were hailed as heroes and looked up to by thousands of runners and non-athletes.

The marathon represented a new challenge to be conquered. Not only was it a physical challenge, but it was a mental one too.

Those who achieved it were celebrated, and those who wanted to run a marathon put it on their bucket lists. Even today, completing a marathon remains a great achievement many aspire to… And it’s still both physically and mentally tough!

Innovations In Athletic Gear

As the popularity of marathons grew, a gap appeared in the market. Shoe and clothing manufacturers began to consider how running a long distance like a marathon differed from the “regular” distances at the time… And how the athletes’ footwear and apparel might affect their performance.

It didn’t happen overnight, but the marathon played a huge role in developing innovations in athletic gear. More supportive shoes, more energetic midsoles, stability features, breathability, anti-chafing apparel, and more all came out of the “marathon craze.”

A Global Running Community

Another thing that sprung up from the marathon is a passionate global running community. The marathon and its story ignited a love for running in many people, and the community has since evolved into a massive group of people across the globe.

Marathons Around the World: Celebrating 26.2 Miles

Marathons have become a global favorite event. Runners flock to them so they can tick a bucket list item off. Spectators join in to watch athletes push themselves to the limit.

Although we now have distances longer than a marathon, it remains the most popular race distance of the day… And maybe even of all time. Here are some of the oldest and most popular marathons in the world.

Boston Marathon (USA) – 1897

The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest yearly marathon, starting in 1897—just a year after the official 1896 Olympic Games. The historic 1896 marathon inspired the Boston Marathon!

The Boston Athletic Association founded the race, and it’s been held every year since. During the pandemic in 2020, participants could do a virtual race instead, so the 126-year streak is still going strong.

Yonkers Marathon (USA) – 1907

Yonkers, New York has a marathon almost as old as the Boston Marathon. Founded in 1907, it’s not as well known as some of the big ones, but it’s well worth entering if you’re a marathoner who loves the history of the race too.

Košice Peace Marathon (Slovakia) – 1924

The oldest marathon in Europe, the Košice Peace Marathon is held in Košice, Slovakia. It began in 1924, intended to promote peace after WWI. The women’s race was officially founded in 1980.

It’s a great choice for new marathoners, as it’s a flat course that’s run in two loops through the city center.

Tokyo Marathon (previously Tokyo International Marathon, Japan) – 1981

The Tokyo Marathon officially began in 2007. Before then, it consisted of two separate events—the Tokyo International Marathon, which took place during even-numbered years, and the Tokyo-New York Friendship International Marathon, run during odd-numbered years. In 2007, the races were combined into one for ease and convenience.

London Marathon (UK) – 1981

Founded in 1981 and held annually, the London Marathon is the second-largest marathon in the UK. It’s another flattish course, making it attractive to many runners.

It doesn’t just have the regular marathon though—it also has a mass race for the public, elite wheelchair races, and a 3-mile “mini marathon” for athletes under 17.

Berlin Marathon (Germany) – 1974

The Berlin Marathon is a popular favorite—it’s flat enough for most runners to complete without being intimidated, and multiple world records have been set on this course.

As well as a regular marathon race, it also hosts a handcycle race, an inline skating race, a wheelchair race, and an open-to-the-public race.

The New York City Marathon

The New York City Marathon is the biggest one in the world. Over 50,000 runners take part every year, and the race attracts entrants from all over the world. It’s a bucket list marathon!

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.