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Why does the marathon have such a non-standard distance – 42,195 m? What does Ancient Greece, Pierre de Coubertin and the King of England have to do with it

Not subject to repair. Liverpool hit new bottom against

Not subject to repair. Liverpool hit new bottom against

Marathon is the Olympic discipline of athletics, a race of 42.2 kilometers (42,195 meters) or 26.3 miles (in countries with a non-metric measurement system). The marathon is one of the toughest endurance sports and is the dream of many amateur runners who want to tick off the list of life achievements.

Like some modern disciplines of athletics, running became competitive in ancient Greece, but long distances at the Olympic Games appeared much later. The marathon, however, took shape only at the end of the 19th century thanks to a beautiful legend and the fanaticism of Baron de Coubertin.

Opening ceremony of the 1896 Olympic Games

History of the marathon

The ancient Olympic Games, which were held from 776 BC to 393 AD in ancient Greece, had little in common with modern ones. From the point of view of disciplines, it was more like a demonstration of military art: then the concept of a professional athlete did not yet exist.

Running was held at the stadium for short distances:

  • stage – a race in a straight line with a length of 192 meters;
  • double run – a run in a straight line with a turn and back 394 meters (two stages).

Then came the average distance of seven furlongs (1344 meters), which eventually increased to 24 furlongs (4608 meters). Longer distances did not exist then.

The legend that formed the basis of the modern marathon movement tells of the mythical race of the Greek warrior Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens. After winning the decisive battle in the bay at Marathon on September 12, 490 BC, against the army of the Persian commander Datis, Phidippides, as a messenger, set off on a run to Athens to deliver the good news.

According to legend, despite the exhaustion after the battle, Pheidippides overcame about 40 kilometers on a run and, having arrived in the city, shouted: “Rejoice, Athenians, we won!”. After that, he fell and died from fatigue and blood loss. However, the legend of Pheidippides has many inconsistencies and critics.

The ancient Greek historian and geographer Herodotus described this battle almost 50 years later, while calling the main character Philippides. According to him, the messenger was sent not after, but before the battle. Philippides traveled 240 kilometers from Athens to Sparta to ask for help from the Spartans. Herodotus’ version formed the basis of another race – Spartathlon, which has been held annually since 1983 along a historical route of 246 kilometers.

The Olympics owes its revival to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who tried to make sports compulsory in French schools and promoted the idea of ​​an international sports festival based on the traditions of the ancient Olympic Games.

On his initiative, on June 23, 1894, the International Olympic Committee was founded in Paris, whose goal was to revive the Olympic Games. One of the delegates at the first meeting was the French historian Michel Breal, who advocated the inclusion of long-distance events in the Games. He took out a beautiful legend about Pheidippides from the archives, which de Coubertin liked. So the marathon entered the list of official athletics disciplines and was waiting for its debut at the 1896 Games in Greece.

IOC meeting in 1896

A few months before the start of the first Olympics, the Greek authorities began to prepare the marathon course. It was laid along the route from Marathon to Athens. Then the length of the distance was not regulated, so the first marathon track had a length of about 40 kilometers.

A month before the Games, the Greek Championship was held, in which 11 participants tested the track of the future Olympics. That championship is considered the first marathon race in history. Two weeks later, another timed competition was held with 38 competitors. The winner posted a time of 3:11:27, which was the first unofficial world record.

The first official marathon at the Olympic Games took place on April 10, 1896. Only 17 athletes took part in the race, most of them Greeks, and the local hero Spiridon Louis won with an amateur by modern standards result of 2:58:50. It is noteworthy that already at the first Games, food points familiar to modern competitions and a car leading the leaders, which was then played by a cavalry officer on a horse, were used.

Four years later, at the Olympics in Paris, the distance of the race was 40.26 kilometers, at the 1904 Games in St. Louis – 40 kilometers. Finally, at the Olympic Games in London in 1908, the marathon gained its modern length – 42 kilometers and 195 meters.

Start of the Olympic marathon at Windsor Castle (1908)

Modern marathon distance

In 1907, during discussions about upcoming competitions, the British Olympic Committee agreed on a standard distance of 40 kilometers for that time. Later, when marking the route around the city, it was increased to 26 miles (slightly less than 42 kilometers).

After the track was laid across London, it was decided that the start would be given at Windsor Castle (this required a separate agreement of King Edward VII of Great Britain), and the finish line would take place at the White City stadium, which was built specifically for the Games. An additional lap was added to the distance of the race inside the Olympic arena with a finish in front of the royal box.

After the completion of the stadium, it turned out that the arch above the royal box, through which the athletes had to run into the arena for the finishing lap, could not be used for this purpose. It was decided to take the entrance from the opposite side, and send the athletes in a clockwise direction (according to the rules of athletics, running around the stadium is counterclockwise), because of which they would cover less circle, but would also finish in front of the royal box.

Finish of the London Marathon (1908)

In the course of the final measurements, a distance of 42 kilometers and 195 meters was obtained.

However, at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, the marathon distance was 40.2 kilometers, and in 1920 in Antwerp – 42.75 kilometers. Only in 1921, the length of the marathon was finally standardized, and since then only the 42 kilometers and 195 meters race can be officially called a marathon.

world records

World records in the marathon are recorded for men and women, while women record separately the time set with the help of male pacemakers (athletes who set the pace) and the time shown in competitions without the participation of men (the so-called “women only” record).

The men’s world record is 2:01:09 and was set by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge at the Berlin Marathon in 2022. He also owns an unofficial world record (1:59:40), set during the Ineos 1:59 Challenge exhibition race, which was held in violation of some athletics rules in order to overcome the two-hour milestone.

Eliud Kipchoge sets world record in Berlin (2022)

The women’s world record, set with the help of male pacemakers, is 2:14:04 and was set by Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei at the 2019 Chicago Marathon. “Women only” world record (2:17:01) belongs to her compatriot Mary Keitani. The time was shown at the London Marathon in 2017.

The Olympic record for men belongs to the Kenyan Samuel Wanjir – 2:06:32 (Beijing, 2008), and for women, the Ethiopian Tiki Gelana won the Olympic marathon in London in 2012 with a time of 2:23:07.

The Russian men’s record at the marathon was set by Alexei Sokolov in Dublin in 2007 (2:09:07), the women’s record was set by Galina Bogomolova in Chicago in 2006 (2:20:47).

Major competitions

Now the marathon is a commercially successful event that attracts a huge number of amateur runners and large sponsors, thanks to which the winner’s earnings at individual starts can exceed $100,000.

Nevertheless, the victory at the Olympic Games is still considered the main achievement in the career of a marathon runner. The marathon is held as part of the Summer Olympics every four years. World record holder Eliud Kipchoge has won the last two starts and will try to become the first ever triple Olympic marathon champion in Paris in 2024.

Also, in odd years (with the exception of 2022, when the competitions were shifted due to the coronavirus), marathon competitions are held as part of the World Championships in Athletics, and in even years, as part of the European Championship.

The most prestigious of the commercial competitions is the World Marathon Majors series, which unites six of the world’s largest marathons – Berlin, London, Tokyo, New York, Chicago and Boston.