How Long Is a Marathon and Why Are They That Long?

(Last Updated On: July 11, 2019)
How Long Is a Marathon and Why Are They That Long?

Most people are well aware that marathons are very long races. They are often a bit vague on exactly how long, though, mainly just being firmly aware that these extreme tests of endurance are far beyond their own capabilities. So, how long is a marathon exactly, and why are they that long in the first place?

The History of Marathons

The whole concept behind the marathon started back with the Greek legend of Pheidippides. In 490 BC, this courier ran from the city of Marathon to the capital, Athens, to spread the celebratory news that the Greeks had defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. He then promptly dropped dead, never realizing he would become eternally famous. Modern marathons are symbolically based on his 25-mile journey, although some historians say that he actually ran from Sparta to Athens first, making his entire trip closer to 150 miles.

Also, while the ancient Olympics ran in Greece from the 8th century BC to late in the 4th century AD, these competitions never included this level of long-distance running. It wasn’t until 1896, in the first official Olympic games run by the International Olympic Committee, that the 25-mile “marathon” became a common event.

For the next decade or so marathons, including the first Boston Marathon in 1897, continued to be run around 25 miles, although the specific distance varied slightly from event to event to match the terrain and available course. Rumor has it that during the Paris Olympics of 1900 the route was so poorly marked that many of the runners got lost and ended up traversing busy streets and popular walking paths. One of the early favorites for the title got so frustrated that he decided to stop for a beer and dropped out of the race.

How Long Is a Marathon Today?

Things stayed this way until 1908 when the distance was upped to 26.2 miles to match the distance between Windsor Castle and White City Stadium in London. While the plan had been for the race to be run 25 miles, as usual, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra wanted the race to start directly in front of the castle so that the Prince and Princess of Wales could see it from the royal nursery. This added roughly a mile. Then another .2 miles was added at the end, this time to ensure the race ended directly in front of their viewing box.

The extra distance turned out to be just a bit too much for Italian pastry chef, Dorando Pietri, who, after leading most of the way, collapsed several times over the final stretch and eventually had to be helped to his feet by a group of spectators that included journalist Arthur Conan Doyle, some of whom justified their actions by saying they were concerned he might die right there in front of the queen. With the aid of these good Samaritans, Pietri managed to cross the finish line in first place before collapsing one final time and being carted off on a stretcher. He was later awarded the gold medal, however, angry protests led by American John Hayes, the second-place finisher, eventually got Pietri disqualified for receiving help, and Hayes became the 1908 gold medal winner in the Olympic marathon.

Ever wonder why it is we walk on two legs in the first place?

The Popularity of Marathons

While the length of the marathon did not officially change at this point, Pietri became a cult hero and instigated a worldwide obsession with marathon running. The popularity of both Pietri and Doyle’s writing (his description of the final 1.2 miles as “the breaker of men” became particularly famous) would ultimately lead to the International Amateur Athletic Foundation (IAAF) standardizing the length of marathons to 26 miles and 385 meters (26.2 miles) in 1921.

So, while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is justifiably most famous as the author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, he never seems to get due credit for his influence on the world’s most famous long-distance race.

The official marathon world record is held by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, who ran it in 2:01:39 in Berlin in 2018, while the women’s record is held by British Paula Radcliffe, who posted a time of 2:15:25 in London back in 2003. To this day, the marathon remains one of the most respected and iconic competitions on the planet.

Think you can name these famous international marathons by their photos?