The start of a marathon

Why is the marathon distance 26.2 miles?

The marathon. For many, an event run by super humans – like Eliud Kipchoge – for others, a life-time goal that pushes both physical and mental limits. In total, a marathon covers 26.2 miles (or 42.2km) in distance and is an endurance adventure fuelled by adrenaline, determination, and sheer want of will.

These 26.2 miles are a distance that’s revered (and feared) all over the world, be that in the Olympics, around your local park, or up in the mountains and with its completion comes respect from all.

Despite this, few understand why and how, the distance has become such a staple fixture in modern day athletics or, more intriguingly, why it’s the peculiar distance of 26.2 miles. So, as Tokyo 2020 Olympics looms ahead, I wanted to take a look at the history of the marathon and what it is that makes this event so special. The answer takes us back to Ancient Greece, to 490 BC and to the Greco-Persian wars.

What is the history of the marathon?

The legend goes that a Greek messenger, by the name of Philippides, saw a Persian vessel sailing towards Athens at the end of a victorious battle for the Greek army. Philippides interpreted this as an attempt by the Persians to rush to the Greek capital and claim the battle’s victory for themselves.

So, what did Philippides do? Well, Philippides threw down his weapons, armour and clothes and he ran. He ran without stopping, all the way to Athens in order to rightfully proclaim the Greek victory at the battle. The name of the battle he had run from? Marathon. The distance? Interestingly, not quite 26.2 miles.

When did the marathon become 26.2 miles?

Nevertheless, the Greeks never held events of a marathon distance in the Ancient Olympics. So, why is it such a staple of the Summer Games and how did they come to choose the distance it is today?

When the modern Olympics began in 1896, those responsible for its organisation wanted to place an event centre stage that would embody the spirit of the Ancient Games. To do so, Michel Bréal – a French philologist – lobbied Pierre de Coubertin to emphasise the ‘character of Antiquity’, by including a long-distance race that echoed the ordeal undertaken by Philippides over two thousand years ago.

Initially the length of an Olympic marathon was not fixed, but the marathon races in the first few Olympic Games were actually closer to 40 kilometres (25 miles), which is approximately the distance from Marathon to Athens. Something you’ll be privy to if you’ve read Haruki Murakami’s book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

It wasn’t until the 1908 London Olympics that the course was extended, allegedly to accommodate the British royal family. Supposedly Queen Alexandra requested that the race start on the lawn of Windsor Castle, which would allow the youngest royals to watch from their nursery.

The race would then finish in front of the royal box at the Olympic stadium and come out to a total distance of 26.2 miles. Finally, in 1921 the International Amateur Athletic Federation set the standard distance of a marathon at 26.2 miles, based on the length of the 1908 race. This cemented the marathon distance into history and paved the way for epic feats of humanity, like Kipchoge’s sub-2 hour marathon.

So, are you ready for your first marathon?

The history of the marathon is interesting, but the real excitement doesn’t come from studying the marathon. It comes from competing in it, from the feeling of following in the footsteps of some of the greatest athletes in history, and from the ups and downs of the training required.

This goal may seem lofty, perhaps even out of reach, but with strong preparation you can ensure yourself the best chance of crossing that finishing line. The key to marathon success is following a schedule. This will ensure you don’t get injured, it will fill you with confidence before your race, and it will hold you accountable to structured training.

Our marathon training plan has been curated specifically to adhere to runners aiming for a multitude of different finishing times. The plan also covers your nutrition, as keeping your body well fuelled and following a healthy diet is a key element to success. Of course, each individual will need to approach their training differently, but a plan will leave you well placed to complete those daunting 26.2 miles of a marathon.

Ever heard the quote: “I dare you to train for a marathon and not have it change your life.” Well, we dare you.

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Sam is currently an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews and when time allows he likes to put the books away and get active. A former keen rugby player, Sam enjoys running, swimming and working out to stay fit and is currently aiming to complete his first marathon when COVID restrictions allow.

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