Brief History of the Marathon


The marathon race commemorates the run of the soldier Pheidippides from a battlefield near Marathon, Greece, to Athens in 490 B.C., bringing news of a Greek victory over the Persians. Legend has it that Pheidippides collapsed and died at the end of his historic run, thereby setting a precedent for dramatic conclusions to the marathon.

When the Olympic Games were inaugurated in 1896 in Greece, the legend of Pheidippides was revived by a 24.85 mile (40,000 meters) run from Marathon Bridge to Olympic stadium in Athens. Traditionally the final event in the Olympics, the first organized marathon on April 10, 1896 was especially important to the Greeks.  Greece was hosting the first modern Olympics, had yet to win a medal, and had one final chance to bring glory to their nation. Twenty-five runners assembled on Marathon Bridge, the starter mumbled a few words and fired the gun, and the race was on. “The excitement of the crowd waiting at the finish line at the ancient but refurbished Panathenaic Stadium was beyond description” writes the Greek historian Quercetani. Spiridon Louis, a Greek postal worker from village of Marusi and veteran of several long military marches, crossed the finish line a full seven minutes ahead of the pack. His time was 2 hours, 58 minutes, 50 seconds for the 40 kilometer distance (average pace of 7:11 minutes per mile). When it was all over – nine runners finished (8 of them Greeks), the host nation was ecstatic, and the marathon was born.

The United States was one of 9 nations at the 1896 Athens Olympics thanks to sponsorship of athletes by the Boston Athletic Association. Middle distance runner Arthur Blake was the only American to enter the first marathon. Blake won a silver medal in the 1500 meters 3 days before the marathon but unfortunately this left him exhausted and he dropped out after about 14.5 miles. The seed was planted, however, and organization for a North American marathon began on the boat back to United States.

The first annual Boston Athletic Association marathon was conducted on April 19, 1897, the date chosen to commemorate the famous ride of Paul Revere in 1775. The topography of the 24.7 mile course (Metcalfe’s Mill in Ashland, MA to Boston’s Irvington St. Oval) was remarkably similar to the Athens course, although about 250 meters shorter. Fifteen runners started the original Boston marathon race with John J. McDermott winning the 39,751 meter distance in 2 hours, 55 minutes, and 10 seconds (average pace of 7:05 minutes per mile).

At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, the marathon distance was changed to 26 miles to cover the ground from Windsor Castle to White City stadium, with 385 yards added on so the race could finish in front of King Edward VII’s royal box. After 16 years of extremely heated discussion, this 26.2 mile distance was established at the 1924 Olympics in Paris as the official marathon distance.  The marathon and half-marathon are the only footraces designated by a name, rather than a distance.

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