How Long Is A Marathon? 4 Methods of Measuring Marathon Length

Let's look at how to measure a marathon comparatively, subjectively, and emotionally…

How long is a marathon? – Whether it’s the Chicago Marathon, Boston Marathon, New York City Marathon, or Berlin Marathon, each marathon course will be the same length.

Here’s the straightforward metric answer: The official, globally recognized marathon length is 26.219 miles or 42.195 kilometers.

That’s the standard, objective metric measurement. (and, if you’re wondering How Long is a Half Marathon, the official half marathon length is 13.11 miles or 21.0975 kilometers).

If you’ve just googled ‘How Long Is A Marathon?’, then well done, you should be pretty satisfied.

But wait!

There are other, more interesting ways to describe the length of a marathon . . . let’s look at how to measure a marathon comparatively, subjectively, and emotionally

Have you ever wondered why a marathon is such a weird, seemingly random length?  

The story behind the length of the marathon starts in Athens, Ancient Greece, makes a turn at the first Olympic marathon and ends in front of the royal box and Queen Alexandra in the 1908 London Olympics. Here’s my summary of it.

How Long Is A Marathon? – Objective Comparisons

Alright, so we’ve established marathon races to be 26.2-ish miles or 42.2 kilometers.  

That’s a pretty long distance, but how else might we describe it in terms that are easier to understand?

Hmm, something that is long in real life that everyone knows about. 

I’ll avoid all the clichés and go straight for the Golden Gate Bridge.

golden gate bridge how long is a marathon

The Golden Gate Bridge – everyone’s favorite disaster movie prop – is 2,747m long, end to end.

How many times would you have to cross the Golden Gate Bridge to cover a marathon?

GG Bridges How Long Is a Marathon

A full marathon is equivalent to running across the Golden Gate Bridge 15.3 times.

That’s pretty far.

Never been to San Francisco?

How about if we think about a football pitch (I’m favoring Europeans and referring to soccer, for you Americans)?

A football pitch’s official size can vary, so I took the average measurements here.

football pitches marathon length

The perimeter of your average football (soccer) pitch is 368m, so that means that in order to cover a full marathon, you’d have to run around a soccer pitch 114.7 times.  

Not much more comforting than the bridge calculation, is it?

How about we start to look at the distance of a marathon in slightly more abstract terms?

Marathon Distance vs. Level of Exertion

We can start by looking at one of the most important variables you’re aware of when you run a marathon: your level of exertion.

It’s an interesting way to consider the length of a marathon subjectively…

A typical, well-prepared marathon runner’s exertion level will look like the graph below on race day.

perceived-marathon-length

The first half of a marathon should be relatively smooth; you’ve trained well, you’ve tapered, you’ve fuelled. Your legs are poised, ready to carry you through the race. Awesome.

Somewhere around the halfway point, something funny starts to happen. You begin to notice that you’re not cruising quite like you were earlier. 

You may notice slight signs of fatigue. In order to maintain a good pace, you’ve got to push yourself a bit more.

As the race continues, your energy levels continue to drop off, and you have to dig deeper – exert yourself more, that is – to keep running.

What is happening here (at least for most of us) is that the energy stored in your muscles – called glycogen – is being used up, and your body has to start burning fat as an energy source. 

This is much less efficient than using glycogen for fuel, so it tends to leave us feeling terrible.

This happens when we hit The Wall (see my longer-winded summary here).

In the graph below, I’ve plotted glycogen levels against exertion levels over time.   As you can see, from the moment you begin running, you are depleting your glycogen levels.

Only when running long distances, once these reserves are beginning to run dry, will you feel real fatigue and The Wall approaching.

Exertion Glycogen marathon length

The 26.2 Mile Marathon – The Perceived Distance

This one is a bit more Inception-ish and kind of hard to quantify. It’s much easier to understand if you have actually run a marathon.

Although we can say as a scientific fact that a marathon is 26.2 miles, anyone who has run one can tell you that this is both true and totally false.

26.2 miles is a distance you can drive in your car without really thinking about it.  You can probably cycle 26.2 miles without getting too out-of-shape about things, too.

26.2 miles is equal to two half-marathons.

But running a marathon is not just like running two half marathons.

Let me explain a little bit more.

Going back to the exertion graph, here’s roughly what a half marathon looks like (to someone who has prepared for a marathon):

HALF MARATHON length how long is a marathon

Now here’s what two of those, back-to-back, look like in terms of exertion:

HALF MARATHON 2 length how long is a marathon

Now let’s overlay the exertion level of an actual marathon, and you’ll see what I’m getting at:

MarathonVsHalf how long is a marathon

Okay, so now the picture is getting a little busier – but hopefully, the message is clear.  Running a marathon is completely different from the experience of running a half-marathon, doubled.

If you’re wondering why the exertion level climbs faster during half marathons, it’s because a runner typically pushes themself harder when they know they are getting closer to the end. 

The same goes for why the starting exertion level is a little lower for a full marathon – runners will generally try and keep a little bit more fuel in the tank.

So, how could we portray a marathon in terms of perceived distance?

Hmm, let’s see…

perceived distance marathon length

The perceived distance graph shows how the first half of the marathon really is a piece of cake (at least, relative to the second half).

The first 10-15 miles will slide past pretty quickly; it is the second half that really seems to go on forever.

This isn’t just a trick of the brain – time really is relative. Scientists will tell you time will go faster if you run faster (here’s a link).1Does time change speed? (2008, May 27). HowStuffWorks. https://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/time-dilation1.htm

‌But really, what happens during a long-distance run, like a marathon, is more of a psychological effect. The more significant an event or the harder something is, the slower and meatier it feels in your brain – in terms of time dedicated to it.

This is why when you reflect on your daily commute, it may seem to pass by without you really being aware of it.   

But if one day you are in a car accident, suddenly that event becomes a significant part of your time – and in hindsight, you remember it much more richly than you would a typical day.

So you are more likely to perceive the second half of a marathon as much longer and more time-consuming simply because it will be tougher and more involving than the first half.

The 26.2 Mile Marathon –  Measured in Emotional Stages

Any marathon runner can tell you that running 26.2 miles is as much of a mental journey as a physical one.

In fact, I figured out recently that there are a total of 15 emotional stages to marathon runningcheck out the full blog here for a stage-by-stage psychological breakdown.

Here’s a summary of what to expect:

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running

#1: Anticipation:Should I have gone to the toilet one more time?”  “Did I take enough gels?” “Do my legs feel a bit weird?”
#2: Sudden Euphoria: “This is awesome!  I’m flying!”
#3: Adrenaline: “Hey, this is easier than I thought.”
#4: Fortitude“There’s still a long way to go, but things are good.”
#5: Boredom: “Did I leave the bathroom light on this morning?”
#6: Doubt: “Am I beginning to feel a little tired?”
#7: Denial: “This is just a minor setback . . . ”
#8: Anger: “Who made these things so long?”
#9: Bargaining: “Maybe if I can just stop for a second, I’ll be fine…”
#10: Depression: “Take me home”
#11: Acceptance: “This hurts, but I guess I’ll continue.”
#12: Fortitude (again): “I’m going to finish this, come hell or high water”
#13: Adrenaline (again): “Hey, I’m getting close to the finish line . . .  I’m actually going to finish this thing!”
#14: Euphoria (again): “Woohoo!”
#15: The Afterglow: “That was awesome, I feel awesome…hey, maybe I could do another one of those sometime.”

Read more about the 15 emotional stages of marathon running here.

Because I love graphs so much, to finish with here is the 15 emotional stages of marathon running in a nice wave, showing you how your mood is probably going to go during your marathon:

How Long Is A Marathon? 4 Methods of Measuring Marathon Length 1

What Is A Good Marathon Time?

The average time it takes to complete a marathon depends on factors such as age group, fitness level, running experience, training schedule, and sex.

According to Run Repeat, the overall average marathon time worldwide is 4:29:53.2Marathon Statistics 2019 Worldwide (Research). (2019). Athletic Shoe Reviews; RunRepeat.com. https://runrepeat.com/research-marathon-performance-across-nations

Breaking it down by sex, the average time to run a marathon for men is 4:21:03, and the average time to run a marathon for women is 4:48:45. 

According to World Athletics, the current men’s world record holder for the best marathon time is Kenya’s Kelvin Kipum, with a time of 2:00:35 to surpass Eliud Kipchoge’s previous record. This marathon world record was set at the Chicago Marathon on October 8, 2023.3Marathon – men – senior – outdoor. (n.d.). Worldathletics.org. https://worldathletics.org/records/all-time-toplists/road-running/marathon/outdoor/men/senior

On the women’s side, Ethiopia’s Tigst Assefa holds the current world record for the marathon with an incredible time of 2:11:53. This record was set at the Berlin marathon on September 24, 2023.4Marathon – women – senior – all. (n.d.). Worldathletics.org. Retrieved January 17, 2024, from https://worldathletics.org/records/all-time-toplists/road-running/marathon/outdoor/women/senior?regionType=world&drop=regular&fiftyPercentRule=regular&page=1&bestResultsOnly=true&firstDay=1899-12-31&lastDay=2022-03-09

Pretty impressive, right? Isn’t all this information just a great build up to get you training for a marathon?

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References

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Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

4 thoughts on “How Long Is A Marathon? 4 Methods of Measuring Marathon Length”

  1. Thomas, I think this post will help non-runners and new runners understand marathon running.
    The first five or ten miles feel fantastic. But things can go down hill quickly later in a race. This is especially true if you went out to fast because it felt so great or you weren’t prepared.
    Well done,
    Andy

    Reply
  2. Hi Thomas,
    I absolutely loved your article, it was very well-written, with a great personal touch. I liked the insights on the relativity of distance and time. Have already shared it with my runner friends!
    Keep up the great work~
    Njål

    Reply

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