26.2 or Bust!


A History of the Modern Marathon

We’ve all seen the ubiquitous “26.2” oval bumper stickers plastered on cars around town. Most of us understand that the digits represent the number of miles in the modern marathon. A handful of our stalwart readers are probably marathon veterans themselves. But what gives? Where does that seemingly random distance come from? Who tacked that killer final quarter of a mile (am I right, marathoners?) on to the end of a nice roundish number?

It All Started with the Greeks

To uncover the origins of the marathon’s distance, we first need to dig into the name. Back in 490 B.C., the Greeks were duking it out with the Persians near a little Greek town named Marathon. It is said that when the home team bested the invaders, a fellow named Pheidippides was charged with running 25 miles back to Athens to deliver the good news.

Upon his arrival, legend upholds, Pheidippides shouted “Niki!” which is Greek for “Victory!” before collapsing and dying in the dirt. As a side note, I understand that Niki was the inspiration for a brand with which we are all quite familiar: Nike.

But I digress.

Then Came the Modern Olympics

While brainstorming competitive events for the 1896 Athens Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, head honcho of the International Olympic Committee, added a tip of the old laurel crown to Pheidippides’ historic jog. Those first modern Olympic games included a 24.85-mile run from Marathon to the Olympic Stadium in Athens.

Race planners in Boston thought the race was a splendid idea. So, a year later, they plotted their own 24.5-mile course through Beantown. In the following years, international marathon distances varied anywhere from 24 to 26 miles without much rhyme or reason.

God Save the Queen!

The year 1908 brought the Olympics to jolly olde England, and a course was set starting at Windsor Castle to a finish line in White Clay Stadium. However, the 26-mile jaunt fell just short of the Royal box seats. Rather than redesign the entire stadium, race planners (smart buggers, they), tacked on an extra 385 yards to the running distance. This is where we get that oddball 0.2 miles. After a few years, the IOC declared the 1908 measurement to be the new standard length for all future marathons. A century later, the novelty bumper sticker market boomed.

That bit of Olympic history also explains why everyone yells “God Save the Queen!” during the last grueling marathon mile. Of course, Edward VII was King of England in 1908… but I don’t make the rules.