How did the marathon emerge

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Three runners training for the first marathon in 1896.

The marathon is seen today as a grueling long-distance, usually over 26-mile race. Marathon's battle fought between the Greek and Persian armies, and the resulting run by a Greek warrior to tell the victory is usually cited as the origin of this sport. While there is truth in this story, the history of the marathon is complex and its presence in many major world cities shows it still stands as one of the great events that tests human will and skill.

From Ancient to the Modern Olympics

The earliest history of the marathon is likely legend based on some facts. The story of the legend states that the Greek messenger Pheidippides ran back to Athens in August/September 490 BCE, a distance of almost 26 miles, to inform the Athenian assembly that the Achaemenid army fighting at the battle of Marathon had been defeated. Very likely, this story did not occur this way, as contemporary accounts do not corroborate this story, and the story of Pheidippides' famous run only emerged in the 1st century CE.

Plutarch in his work, On the Glory of Athens, mentions this famous event. Potentially more likely, although it is still unclear, there was a runner, perhaps called Pheidippides, who ran to Sparta from Athens to seek assistance from the Spartans as the Achaemenid army advanced.[1]

Whatever the accuracy of the story, what we do know is that the ancient Greeks loved running sports and very likely there would have been athletes who trained to run long-distances. Ancient Greek sources discuss training and the use of complicated regimes to train athletes for the ancient Olympics. The origin of many events, including the pentathlon, developed from this.[2]

However, because the legend of Pheidippides was so well entrenched after Roman sources began to mention this event, this story became the critical event that helped shaped the development of the modern marathon. When the Olympics were revived in 1896, the idea was to revive a key event in Greece and Athens' history. Therefore, the marathon was chosen as a commemorative event and that began the history of the modern marathon.

Organizers of the Olympics Michel Bréal and Pierre de Coubertin wanted something to tie the modern Olympics with Greece's ancient glory. The idea was popular and the first winner of the 1896 Olympic Marathon was a Greek runner named Spyridon Louis.[3]

The Modern Sport

Spyridon Louis entering Olympic stadium in 1896.

With the introduction of the marathon as a new sport, it soon became popular as an event that was run outside of the Olympics. In 1897, the Boston Marathon began to be an annual event and today is one of six major world marathon events held where the world's top runners compete. The race is the oldest continuing marathon and has always been run on Patriot's Day. The holiday symbolizes the first battles of the American Revolution. Thus the Boston Athletic Association, which runs the event, uses the date to tie the American struggle for freedom with that of the ancient Greeks.[4]

The race length was not standardized in its early history. The Olympics and other events ranged from 24-26 miles. The roughly 26.2 miles distance that now is standard became established by the 1908 London Olympics. Initially, the organizers wanted the race to run from Windsor Castle to the Olympic stadium. However, it was decided that, as the royal family was in the stadium, it would be good to have a final lap around the main track and then have the race finish. Although this happened for the 1908 Olympics, this length was still not standardized until 1921.

By 1924, the Boston Marathon, which by now had emerged as the world's premier marathon running event outside of the Olympics, standardized the distance to conform with the 1908 Olympic length. This now led the way for all international marathon events by the 1920s to be the same length.[5]

Surprisingly, given progress in other events after World War II, women were not allowed to run marathon events in many places and in particular the Olympics. In the 1896 Olympics, Stamatis Rovithi became the first woman to run the marathon; however, she did this by not running the official course but rather in a track parallel to the course. She finished about 1.5 hours behind the winner of the race but did pass many men during her running. Violet Piercy was the first woman to be officially timed in a marathon race in 1926, with a time of 3:40:22.

Because so few women were allowed to run, this record stood for more than 37 years. In the 1966 Boston Marathon, Roberta Gibb sneaked into the race and ran an unofficial time of 3:21:25, becoming the first woman known to complete the course. In another well-known incident, in 1967, an entrant named K.V. Switzer ran the race. However, the person was really Kathrine Switzer. Race officials only found out it was a woman after the race had begun.

In a somewhat comical event, the officials tried to pull her out of the race during the running once they found out the runner was a woman, but her teammates fended their attempts and she was able to complete the event with a time of over 4 hours. In the 1970s, women's marathons, particularly in Germany, began to be organized. The main issue was that doctors and health professionals strongly believe women's bodies could not cope with the long-distance race. However, it was also the Olympic rules that prevented the women's marathon from becoming official, as it required 25 countries to hold the event for it to be an official event.

The same Kathrine Switzer who ran the Boston Marathon began organizing a series of women's running events and obtained powerful sponsorship from legislators and, most importantly, corporate money (Avon in particular). Finally, in the Los Angles Olympics in 1984, the Olympics held it first women's marathon event, won by Joan Benoit from the US with a time of 2:24:52. By then, there were 28 countries now competing in this event for women.[6]

Kenya stands out as a country that has been disproportional to its population and produced many great runners over the last few decades. This could be because populations there had evolved to use long-distance running. Genetically, Kenyans from the western part of the country have been shown to have relatively efficient bone structures for running, helping them develop advantages over others. For example, Kenyan boys training for a few months has been shown to outperform Western runners trained for many years.

Much of that advantage derives from having a thin physique, long legs, and efficient body mass ratios that have helped runners from Kenya develop an advantage.[7]

Why it is Still Popular?

The Boston Marathon in 1910

With the entry of women, the marathon as we know it today had become set. Among the most difficult of the Olympics, the sport has become popular with many amateur runners worldwide. Because few other sports test both stamina and physical ability, where the mental challenges of running for such a long distance are as significant as the physical ones, it may explain why this sport is relatively popular. The sport is increasingly associated with raising charitable funds, as amateurs and professionals use the event to raise funds for their causes.[8]

Over half a million runners ran marathon races in 2014 in the US. Interestingly, the over 40 population segment has grown the most substantially in participating in the marathon. Once again, it is likely the physical and mentally demanding nature that has pushed this sport's popularity for older athletes.[9]

For most runners, a marathon is a one-time event to challenge one self and possibly raise funds. However, for some amateurs, it is a year-round lifestyle. Runners train for the many major events. The marathon has even inspired more extreme running events that have grown in popularity, ranging from ultra-marathons that are over 100 miles in some cases to difficult races that traverse wild terrain and mountainous areas. Medically, running can be addictive, with endorphins perhaps influencing some runners to keep running. Whatever the exact reasons, the trend of long-distance running inspired by the marathon continues to grow. Clubs and group training events can now be found in many places in Europe and the United States in particular.


Although perhaps a myth, the long-distance run from Marathon's plains to Athens helped inspire the running of the modern marathon in 1896. The first modern Olympics soon inspired the Boston Marathon, and ever since, the sport has been growing in popularity. Today, thousands of towns and cities worldwide hold marathon events. Marathon running has become a highly competitive event where millions of dollars of prize money are at stake. The sport continues to be physically demanding, and in many major marathon events there are often reports of death or injury, but the association of fundraising, physical and mental challenge, and perhaps addictive nature of running for some has helped it to continue as a popular sport for many.


  1. For more on the battle of Marathon and the history of the marathon's origins, see: Kyle, Donald G. 2007. Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World. Ancient Cultures. Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub, pg. 96.
  2. For more on Greek running sports, see: Woff, Richard. 1999. The Ancient Greek Olympics. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. For a history of the first marathon race in the first modern Olympics, see: Holmes, Burton. 1984. The Olympian Games in Athens, 1896: The First Modern Olympics. 1st Evergreen ed. New York: Grove Press.
  4. For more information on the Boston Marathon history, see: Derderian, Tom. 2014. Boston Marathon a Celebration of the World’s Premier Race. Triumph Books.
  5. For a history of the marathon's modern length, see: Davis, David. 2012. Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
  6. For more on the marathon and women's history, see: Switzer, Kathrine. 2009. Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s Sports. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
  7. For more on Kenya's success with the marathon, see Pitsiladis, Yannis P, Yannis P Pitsiladis, Vincent O Onywera, Evelina Georgiades, William O’Connell, and Michael K Boit. 2004. “The Dominance of Kenyans in Distance Running.” Equine and Comparative Exercise Physiology 1 (4): 285–91. doi:10.1079/ECP200433.
  8. For more on how today's marathon is popular with many amateur runners: Murphy, Sam, and Sam Murphy. 2009. Marathon and Half Marathon: From Start to Finish. London: A & C Black, pg. 165.
  9. For statistics on the marathon's popularity, see Zinner, Christoph, and Billy Sperlich. 2016. Marathon Running: Physiology, Psychology, Nutrition, and Training Aspects, pg. 108.