Marathon Lessons from a Novice: Why the Race is 26.2 Miles Long

By Julianna LeMieux — Oct 02, 2017
During the long runs we've been doing to train for the upcoming marathon, we've had some time to think. It made us wonder: Why is a marathon the distance that it is? Here's how it happened, and why it's remained that long.

As I mentioned in previous articles in this series - "Marathon Lessons From A Novice" - I am running my first marathon in a few weeks (gulp.) 

I have been a recreational runner for many years now and have completed multiple half marathons along the way. But, what sets a marathon apart is, obviously, it's length - 26.2 miles is a long run.

During the long runs that I have been doing to train for the marathon, I have had some time to think. With much more time that I want, really, I have wondered - why is the marathon 26.2 miles? How did this distance start and why has it continued?

For that answer, we have to dig into some Greek history - back to 490 B.C., in fact. The marathon was first run to commemorate the run of a soldier named Pheidippides. The story goes that Pheidippides ran from a battlefield near the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens. He made the journey in order to deliver the message that the Persians had been defeated. 

After the ~ 25 mile run, Pheidippides completed the task by announcing the victory with the word "Niki" - and then died.  

Fast forward a few thousand years, to the Olympic Games held in Greece in 1896, which retraced the route of Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens. Just one year later, the first non-Olympic marathon was held in Boston on April 19, 1897. 

For the next few decades following, marathons were run in and outside of the Olympics - and distances varied at each running. They were all around 26 miles, but, standardizing one to another did not seem a priority. It was not until 1908 that 26.2 miles was set as the official marathon distance. 

This year, I will (hopefully) join the other half a million people who run in over 1,100 organized marathons in the United States each year. Regardless of how the distance was determined, the finish line is 26.2 miles from the start. Let's hope my fate is better than Pheidippides and all that I do after I cross it is hit a hot shower. 

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