Why 42.195 km or 26 miles and 385 yards?
The marathon is one of the most popular distances run all over the world, and hundreds of races are organised each year. But who ever decided that it would be a good idea to compete in running exactly 42.195 km, or 26 miles and 385 yards?
“We have won!”
The first thing to know is that Marathon is a place. It is a town in Greece and the site of the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, when the invading Persians were defeated by the Athenians. Legend has it that a messenger named Pheidippides was sent back to Athens with the news of their victory. He ran the entire distance without stopping and arrived to exclaim “We have won!” before collapsing and dying of exhaustion.
Whether this story is true is another matter (still debated by historians), but the road from Marathon to Athens is indeed 42 kilometers long. It wasn't until the late 19th century, however, that the idea of creating a race of this distance came up.
The modern marathon is connected to ancient Greece in yet another way: the Olympics. Every four years, the Greeks would hold the Olympic Games, a festival of athletic competitions hosted in Olympia in honour of Zeus. Different legends exist about the origin of this tradition, but it was probably begun in the 8th century BC and continued for more than a thousand years.
The Olympic tradition was revived in Europe in the 19th century, and it was decided to include a long-distance running race: the marathon. The man credited with the idea was a French philologist called Michel Bréal, who pitched the idea to the founder of the International Olympic Committee, Pierre de Coubertin.
And so during the first modern Olympic Games, held in Greece in 1896, the first marathon race was run. Seventeen runners competed and only nine finished the race, which was won by the Greek Spyridon Louis. That race, by the way, had a length of 40 km. It took until 1921 for the marathon distance to be officially fixed at 42.195 km.
While the marathon greatly grew in popularity, it remained a men-only event well into the second half of the 20th century – a situation which was increasingly protested by female athletes. In several instances, women ran in marathons unofficially, notably Kathrine Switzer, who finished the 1967 Boston marathon.
Even so, it would take until 1984 for the women's marathon to be included as an Olympic event. That year in Los Angeles, American runner Joan Benoit became the first woman to win an Olympic marathon.
In 2010, the world celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the marathon. With hundreds of marathons organised worldwide, female participation continues to grow, and many women-only running events have sprung up as well. As Europe-wide research conducted by ASICS shows, 2,500 years after Pheidippides' fateful run, the venerable marathon has never been more popular.