So, Just how far is a Marathon Anyway?


A Brief History of the Marathon…

It astounds me the number of people who ask me, “The marathon…. how far is that?” Even my own mother asked me the Friday before I was about to head to Canberra for the Canberra marathon, “How far is this one?” “Umm…. the same distance as every other marathon I have done, Mum.”

Have I just always assumed that is common knowledge that everybody knew how far a marathon was? I guess I have. But I always love the look on somebody’s face when they ask you, and you tell them, “42.2 kilometres”. “You RUN that far?” they say, or “Man, I get tired driving that far!”

The marathon is always 42.2km. (Or 42.195km, if you want to get really technical.) That’s 26.2 miles. It got its name from a Greek Legend. Apparently, over 2500 years ago, in a place called Marathon, there was a battle called the battle of Marathon. The Greeks defeated the Persians, an the Greek Soldier Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the news of the victory. They say he ran the entire distance without stopping, announced the news, and then collapsed and died. (Yep, that’s how I feel after completing a marathon too – so the legend must be true.) The distance from Marathon to Athens was around 25 miles. Well actually, there are several ways to get from Marathon to Athens. How do we know which road Pheidippides took? He’s dead, we can’t ask him. For the sake of the story, let’s say it was 25 miles.

“25 miles,” I hear you say? “But you just said that the Marathon was always 26.2 miles.” Well, it is now, and it has been for the last 105 years. But, for the 2400-odd years before that, it was never really precisely fixed, and probably closer to 25 miles.

The marathon has been part of the olympic games since their inception in 1896. Traditionlly, the men’s marathon marks the end of the olympic athletics program, and is usually held on the last day. It also usually finishes inside the olympic stadium. The medals for the men’s marathon are awarded during the closing ceremony.

Until 1908, the distance of the marathon remained about 25 miles, give or take. Then, at the 1908 London games, the length of the marathon course was altered so that the marathon could start at Windsor Castle, and finish inside the stadium in front of the royal family, a distance of 42.195km. In May 1921, the IAAF set the standard distance of the marathon at 42.195km (plus/minus 42m) based on the London Olympic Marathon course.

The women’s marathon was not included in the Olympic program until the Los Angeles games in 1984. Women were not allowed to officially enter the Boston Marathon until 1972.

These days, Marathons are held all around the world, nearly every week. Major marathons often have entries by women making up 40% or more of total participants.

Out of the top 10 official fastest marathon men of all time, 7 of them are Kenyan. The remaining 3 are Ethiopian. Berlin, Chicago and London all rate among the fastest marathons in the world, although the fastest marathon time ever was recorded on 18th April 2011 by Geoffrey Mutai (Kenya) in Boston. Too bad for Geoffrey, because unfortunately the Boston Marathon is not recognised as an eligible course for world records by the IAAF. This is because it is net downhill and because the geography of the course allows for a significant tailwind.

Still, I hope to run the Boston Marathon in 2014, and If I set a personal best in that race, I plan on writing it in MY record book, IAAF approval or not.

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