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17th May 2019

The History of the Marathon

It may be held over the seemingly random distance of 26 miles and 385 yards (or 42.195km), but perhaps no event in athletics holds quite the same mystic or iconic status as the marathon.

The event was born out of the legend of the Athenian courier Pheidippides, who in 490BC ran from the site of the battle of marathon to Athens with the message of Nike (‘Victory’) before promptly collapsing and dying.

Around 2500 years later the idea of recreating such a long-distance test was revived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin – the founder of the Modern Olympics. Keen to retain the spirit of Pheidippides, a 40km marathon was held at the first inaugural Modern Games in Athens in 1896 as Greek water-carrier Spyridon Louis struck gold in a time of 2:58:50 to launch the marathon phenomenon.

The inaugural marathon proved so popular that one year later the Boston Marathon – the oldest annual marathon – was created.

Yet it was perhaps the marathon race held at the 1908 London Olympics, which most significantly defined the marathon we know today.

The length of the 1908 London Marathon – from Windsor Castle to the White City Stadium - was initially fixed at 26 miles. However, a late request from The Queen to move the start back to the East Lawn of Windsor Castle, from where the race could be seen by the royal children in their nursery, added a further 385 yards (352m) and so the official marathon distance was born.

The 1908 Olympic marathon is also remembered as one of the most iconic in history. Italian Dorando Pietri entered the stadium first only to heartbreakingly collapse near the finish. He was helped over the finish line by a British official, only to be disqualified for achieving assistance. The gold was awarded to American Johnny Hayes, the second man over the line. However, such was the public’s outpouring of sympathy for Pietri he was awarded a special medal from the Queen.

While the 1908 Olympic marathon cemented the event’s status within the fabric of the quadrennial multi-sport festival other marathon races slowly appeared on the calendar. In 1924 Europe’s oldest marathon - the Kosice Marathon in Slovakia - was founded. Elsewhere, the inaugural Fukuoka Marathon in Japan took place in 1947.

The Race to 1:59. The progression of the official men's marathon record.

One of the all-time marathon greats emerged at the 1960 Rome Olympics, when barefoot Ethiopian Abebe Bikila claimed victory in a world record 2:15:16. Four years later he matched the achievement to become the first man in history to retain his Olympic marathon title in Tokyo. Yet perhaps Bikila’s lasting legacy is the fact he was the athlete who ushered in the overwhelming East African marathon dominance we see today.

The jogging boom of the 1960s and 1970s ignited an explosion of marathon events. In 1970 the New York City Marathon was born while it was during the seventies that women were allowed to official enter marathons for the first time.

In the early 1980s, the Berlin Marathon and London Marathons came into being and today dozens of other marathons all across the globe have been established as completing the 42.2km distance has become a bucket list item for many.

At the elite end of the field the marathon has also undergone a revolution. After Australian Derek Clayton set a world record of 2:08:33 in Antwerp in 1969 for the next 30 years a little under three minutes was chipped off the men’s world record.

However, in the past 20 years alone more than four minutes has been hacked of the men’s world record thanks to a series of blistering times principally achieved on the super-fast Berlin Marathon course.

As shoe technology, a better understanding of sports science and nutrition has enhanced, so the times have tumbled with Eliud Kipchoge at the vanguard of the marathon revolution.

In 2017, as part of the Breaking2 Project, the Kenyan distance running legend ran a staggering 2:00:25 for the distance in the unratified event. Meanwhile, last September he wiped 78 seconds from the existing world record to record 2:01:39.

For many years there has been talk of when we would witness the first sub-two-hour marathon and given Eliud’s pedigree (11 wins from 12 marathons) and stunning progression he could just be the man to scale the Mt Everest of distance running and add the latest chapter to the captivating history of the marathon in the INEOS 1:59 Challenge.

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