Marathon History: The Origin And Development Of This Famous Race

The marathon is a beloved race distance for dedicated runners. It draws one-and-done runners looking to check off an impressive bucket list goal as well as seasoned marathoners who are well known in their social circles as running at least one marathon per year.

As runners train for the race, logging mile after mile, whether on Sunday long runs or Tuesday tempo workouts, they can’t help but have at least a fleeting thought of marathon history and its origin and development.

Many runners are familiar with the lore of Pheidippides as the origin story of the marathon, but beyond that, our minds go blank about marathon history.

Yet, the history of the marathon has a rich and storied past. There’s all sorts of interesting nuggets of information about marathon history that can deepen even the most diehard marathoners’ appreciation for the famed 26.2-mile distance.

In this article, we will take a trip back through the annals of time, looking briefly at marathon history, from the origins of the marathon to the popular event enjoyed by millions of runners each year that it is today.

We’re going to cover:

  • Who Ran the First Marathon Ever?
  • When Was the First Marathon?
  • Why Is A Marathon 26.2 Miles?
  • Marathon History Outside Of the Olympics

Let’s get started!

A statue of a Greek soldier.

Who Ran the First Marathon Ever?

The history of the marathon begins some 2,500 years ago.

As the legend goes, the origins of the marathon date back to 490 BC, in the city of Marathon, Greece.

There, the Persian Empire, under Darius I, deployed a massive fleet, manned by 18,000-25,000 soldiers.

In one of the most significant battles in the classic world, the much smaller 10,000-man Athenian army set out to defend their turf.

The Athenians called upon reinforcements from Sparta, but due to various logistical challenges like the incredible distance between Marathon and the Peloponnese, additional manpower never arrived, leaving the Athenians stuck facing the attack on their own.

Despite the odds, the Athenians prevailed in what was aptly called the Battle of Marathon, due to its location.

Here’s where Pheidippides enters the story of the first marathon runner in history.

The ruins of Sparta, part of marathon history.

As a herald, also known as a hemerodrome, Pheidippides was basically paid to run from place to place to deliver messages, as modern forms of communication didn’t yet exist.

According to the legend, Pheidippides was summoned by the Athenian army to call for more reinforcements from Sparta, theoretically tasking him with running all the way from Marathon to Sparta (153 miles over rough terrain, including at least one notable mountain).

He would have then had to run back to return to Athens to deliver the news that the Spartans weren’t going to come provide support.

However, in the simplified version of the origins of the modern marathon, this Athens-to-Sparta run is omitted.

Instead, the story goes that after witnessing the surprising triumph of the vastly outnumbered Athenian soldiers, Pheidippides ran from the battle site in Marathon to the Acropolis in Athens to deliver the news to the government.

Upon arriving at the Acropolis, Pheidippides is said to have uttered something like “chairete, nikomen (“hail, we are the winners”), or “Joy, we are winners,” and then immediately collapsed and died.

So why the marathon distance?

The distance from the battlefield in Marathon to the Acropolis in Athens was roughly 40 kilometers or 25 miles.

A statue of a Greek soldier.

When Was the First Marathon?

Between the potential genesis of the marathon with Pheidippides’ heroic run in 490 BCE and the first official organized marathon race, some 1,500 years passed.

Returning to the origin country of the marathon, Greece, the first competitive marathon wasn’t staged until just before the 1896 Olympics held in Athens.

The 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece is considered the start of the modern era of the Olympics.

The ancient Olympic Games, which ran from 776 BCE to 393 AD, also occurred in Greece, but they did not include foot races nearly as long as the marathon. 

In fact, the longest races in the ancient games were about 5 kilometers.

Interestingly, although that marathon distance is now the firmly-established 26.2-mile or 42.195-km distance, the first official marathon at the Olympics in Athens was indeed 40 kilometers, or roughly 25 miles.

Recall that this is the distance Pheidippides was said to run between Marathon and Athens when delivering the news of Greek victory, so the original organized marathon distance was chosen to commemorate the fabled run of the fleet-footed messenger.

But, how did the first marathon race come to be?

A portrait of Robert Browning.

Whether a true story or a legend, the Pheidippides’ fatal run from Marathon to Athens was eulogized in a poem written by Robert Browning.

Given the popularity of his works at the time, and the undeniable draw of the legend of Pheidippides’ marathon run, the idea of resurrecting the marathon distance and incorporating it into the revival of the Olympic Games was very appealing and apropos to Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

De Coubertin was a Frenchman, who was involved in the genesis of those first Olympics in the modern era, believing that sport made people stronger and built national character.

He looked to the military successes of Britain and Prussia relative to the weakness and defeat of his native nation, France in terms of national standings, noting that Britain had a strong emphasis on sporting endeavors in public schools.

Needless to say, De Coubertin set out to make sport mandatory in French schools and to create an international sporting event resemblant of the ancient Olympics.

He formed an International Olympic Committee in 1894, where the delegates agreed to establish the first modern Olympics in Athens two years later, and repeated events every four years. 

An empty Olympic stadium.

In terms of the first marathon at those games, Michel Bréal, one of the delegates on the committee, was the man who championed the idea of having a long-distance race.

As a history buff, Bréal had read about the legend of Pheidippides, and wrote in a letter to Coubertin in 1894: 

“If you go to Athens, you could try and see if a long distance run from Marathon to Pnyx could be organised. That would emphasize the character of Antiquity… I, personally, claim the honour of sponsoring the marathon trophy.”

The Greek government was in favor of the Olympic Games as well as the marathon race as a means of bolstering national pride.

Tons of money was spent erecting a marble replica of the stadium at Olympia.

Accordingly, the first Olympic Marathon was a 40-km run from Marathon Bridge to the new stadium in Athens.

Although the first organized marathon is usually cited to be the actual running at the event at the 1896 Olympic Games, a month before the race, a small Greek Championship event was held.

In this foot race, 11 competitors ran from Marathon to Athens, completing what was then the marathon distance. Therefore, this was the first marathon ever.

Just two weeks later, there was an official marathon trial race on the course, with 38 competitors toeing the line.

The winner ran 3:11:27.

The marathon distance remained at roughly 25 for the next few Olympic Games.

A person waiving an Olympic flag.

Why Is A Marathon 26.2 Miles?

So, what about the piece of marathon history concerning the distance? How and when did the marathon change from 40 kilometers to 26.2 miles?

The marathon distance was changed to 26.2 miles for the 1908 Olympic Games in London.

As this part of marathon history goes, the race course needed to be extended to accommodate the British royal family. 

Allegedly, Queen Alexandra requested that the marathon race event would start on the lawn of Windsor Castle.

Some say this was to allow the royal children to watch the start of the race from the window in the nursery.

The race course was slated to finish in front of the royal box at the Olympic stadium, and the distance between these two points along the route clocked in at exactly 26 miles and 385 yards, which is how the marathon became 26.2 miles (the 0.2 is the 385 yards).

Interestingly, rather than resorting back to the original 40 kilometers or 25 miles, the increased marathon distance ended up sticking for the next several Olympic Games.

Furthermore, in 1921, the length for a marathon became formally standardized at 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers) rather than 40 kilometers or 25 miles.

Greek ruins.

Marathon History Outside Of the Olympics

Outside of the Olympic games themselves, the marathon also has an interesting and storied past.

While the first organized marathon didn’t take place until 1896 at the Olympic games in Athens, the marathon race for lay people wasn’t far behind.

The first marathon road race outside of the Olympics was the Boston Marathon, which had its inaugural running in 1897, just one year later.

The Boston Marathon is the longest-running annual marathon in the world.

However, it wasn’t until 75 years later, in 1972, when women were first allowed to officially enter the Boston Marathon.

A Boston dock.

Even further behind, the first Olympic marathon for women wasn’t held for yet another 12 years, in 1984. 

Although the modern era of the women’s marathon is notably short, in the couple of weeks leading up to the first Olympic marathon in Athens in 1896, two women, Melpomene and Stamathis Rovithi, are reported to have run the course from Marathon to Athens.

What was once a race distance rarely contested outside of the Olympic Games, the Boston Marathon, or a few other isolated pockets of the world, is now raced year-round in countries all over the word.

In fact, according to Running USA, there were over 1,100 marathons in the USA alone in 2016.

Now that you’re all caught up with your marathon history, when will you be crossing the finish line?

If you need guidance training for your marathon, check out our training resources!

Greek ruins at sunset.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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