One hundred years of 26.2

The 2008 Olympics marks the hundredth anniversary of the peculiar choice of 26.2miles for the marathon.

It’s rather interesting how that distance was chosen, I’d like to tell you about it. Are you all sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

The Greek Olympic games started in 776BCE and lasted until 393CE. As with the modern games they were held every 4 years.

The games were not open to women (who weren’t even allowed to watch), but there was a similar set of athletic contests for unmarried women.

There was no marathon race. There were really only four footraces, though the specifics varied over the centuries: a 1 stade sprint which went from one end of the stadium to the other (~192m), a diaulos sprint (2 stade, ~380m, where the runners went back and forth turning at a post), a long distance race, dolichos, which was anywhere from 7 to 24 stade (1.3km~4.6km), and finally a 2~4 stade run in full armor (which weighed about 50 lb).

The Roman Emperor Theodosius forbade pagan cults in 393CE and thus ended the games of antiquity. [†]

Heroditus tells us that when the Persians invaded Greece in 490BCE, the Athenians sent the runner Pheidippides to Sparta to request aid (~150miles), later, when the battle was won, a runner ran from the battle site at Marathon to Athens to report the good news (this runner is often said to be Pheidippides though Heroditus does not name him).

The Olympic games were revived in 1896; with the first one held in Athens to honor the ancient tradition. The organizers decided to finish the games with a long distance race from Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 40km (roughly 25 miles), the race was won with a time of 2:58. This was the first marathon.

The first Boston marathon was on 19 April 1897, the course was 24.5miles long (a little shorter than the Olympic distance) and 15 people ran it. This race was won with a 2:55 time. [†]

The marathon was not a set distance in the early years, it was roughly 40km, but each course was different.

In 1908 the Olympics were held in London, the race was originally designed to be ~25 miles long. It started near Windsor castle and ended at the Stadium in Shepherd’s Bush. The Princess of Wales requested that the start of the race be moved so that her children could watch. This added a mile to the course. Then Queen Alexandria wanted the end of the race moved so that she would get the best view of it. This added 385 yards to the course. (I think I would have been quite annoyed to discover that the race I intended to run was 5% longer than I expected, ah well, one of the last instances of the use of the royal prerogative I presume).

The winner of the 1908 marathon was not the first to cross the finish line. Dorando PIETRI entered the stadium first, but was so disoriented he ran the wrong way around the track; the umpires redirected him, but then he fell, and fell 3 or 4 more times and had to be helped. He finished with a time of 2:54:46 (where the last 385 yards took ~10 minutes), John Hayes won with a time of 2:55:18 (Dorando was disqualified because he needed help to finish). [†]

After the London Olympics, the Polytechnic Harriers of London created the Polytechnic Marathon (in London), it was the next marathon to chose 26miles 385yards as its standard distance. It was run annually in from 1909 until 1996. The first running was on 26 May 1909 and the winning time was 2:42:31. [†]

In 1912 the Olympic marathon distance was 40.2km (24.98miles), in 1920 it was 42.75km (26.56miles). (in 1916 there were no Olympics because of World War I)

In 1924 the Olympic distance was standardized to the 1908 distance [†]. Boston changed its course that year, but the new distance was still too short, and Boston was not the standard distance until 1927. [†]

Women were first (officially) allowed to run Boston in 1972 (3:10:26)[†], in the Polytechnic in 1978 (2:54:11)[†], while the first Olympic woman’s marathon was Los Angeles in 1984 (2:24:52).[†]

Boston started requiring qualifying times in 1970. At first the requirement was that all runners be able to run faster than 4 hours. At some later point an age-graded system was put in place. In 2002 the age-graded system was amended to make it attract more older runners (the qualifying times for runners 45years+ were increased). [†]


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