To run a marathon is a popular bucket list item which unfortunately most people never get to accomplish. I haven’t managed to find any accurate research on the statistics of the percentage of those that list the desire to run a marathon, that successfully go on to achieve this goal. However what I do know is that completing a marathon is one of the most satisfying bucket list or goal to accomplish.

We offer advice for the couch potatoes starting from scratch, to those casual joggers who desire to run a marathon. Almost without fail, most people go through a difficult period, however with the right determination and burning desire it is very much attainable.

More about the Marathon

The marathon has become a tribute to the legendary Pheidippides, who was a Greek soldier who ran from the ‘Battle of Marathon’ all the way to Athens where he reported victory. Today, this long-distance race is usually run on the road, with runners having to complete a distance of 42.195 km or 26 miles. The marathon is a race meant for running, but many have employed the technique of run/walking in order to reach the finish line.

The official distance, as stated above, was only decided upon in 1921. Before this, records show that the marathon was part of the Olympics in 1896. There are hundreds of marathon races held each year, all around the world. Many of the participants are runners who do it for recreational purposes, which is why many of the events have thousands of entrants each year.

The History of the Marathon

The origins and the word marathon comes from Greek legend. Way back in 490BC, when the Persians decided to invade Greece. The citizens of Athens and the Persians met on the battlefield, which was on the plains of Marathon, a part of northeastern Attica at the time. It is said that the Greek messenger Philippedes also known as Pheidippides, ran all the way from the battle to Athens. Upon reaching Athens, he rushed into an assembly and shouted, “we have won”. Unfortunately, he had so exhausted himself, he fell down and died.

The entire incident was recorded and shows up in an essay by Plutarch, with the heading ‘On the Glory of Athens.’ This appeared during the first century AD and is cited from the lost works of Heraclides Ponticus, a Greek Philosopher and Astronomer.  Here the legendary runner is referred to as both Eucles and Thersipus of Erchius. Another mention of the famous runner can also be found in the writings of Lucian of Samosata, in the second century. The Syrian satirist mentions the famous runner as Philippides.

Herodotus, who was a Greek historian, also mentions a messenger, using the name Philippedes. His comments refer to a messenger who ran from Athens all the way to Sparta, where he requested help. The messenger then ran back to Athens, which would add up to more than 240km both ways. The historian does not mention anywhere in writings about a messenger who ran from Marathon to Athens. He does mention that a large part of the Athenian Army, having beaten the Persians, marched on towards Athens, in order to protect the city from a potential naval attack. So, there seems to be a bit of a debate on the entire story. Robert Browning, an English poet and playwright, penned a poem about Pheidippides in 1879. During the 19th century, his works became popular and the story became legendary.

Considering the route that Philippides ran, he would have had to run around Mount Pentelicus. Now, nobody knows which route he may have taken, but there is a path he could have chosen, which today follows the Marathon-Athens Highway. This exact same route would have been about 40km long (original marathon distance), during the time the Olympics re-emerged in 1896. Philippides could have also taken another route, this would have been shorter, but it would have been a tough climb along the slopes of the mountain. Whatever the distance route, or real story, this famous legend inspired future generations to challenge themselves, all running their own marathon.

The Marathon in the Modern Olympics

The modern Olympics came into being in 1896. Those in charge at the time needed to come up with an event, which could become popular amongst the masses. This is where the idea of Ancient Greece came into play. The marathon race itself was suggested by a man named Michel Bréal. His desire was to have the marathon event appear in the first 1896 Athens Olympic Games.

Pierre de Coubertin, the organizer and one who came up with the idea of a modern Olympics, supported Bréal’s plan. Not only that, the Greek citizens welcomed the idea. The first step was for the Greeks to have a selection race, which was won by Charilaos Vasilakos (he won in 3h18minutes). The modern Olympics began on the 6th April 1896 and the first male marathon winner was a Greek named Spyridon Louis. He won the race on the 10 April in a time of 2h58minutes and 50 seconds.

Many years later, in 2004, the Olympics was again held in Athens. The marathon race was run along the famous route from Marathon to Athens, the finish line being at the Panathinaiko Stadium. This stadium was also the main venue, which held the original modern Olympic in 1896. An Italian, Stefano Baldini won the 2004 Olympic marathon race in record time. Later in 2014, Felix Kandie won the Athens marathon race on the same route and beat Balbini’s record by 18 seconds.

Before, these types of marathon races were run by males only. The first women’s marathon only came into being in 1984 at the USA, Los Angeles Summer Olympics event. The race was won by an American woman named Joan Benoit (2h24minutes52seconds).

Over the years, there has bee a tradition where the men’s marathon race is run on the final day of Olympic events. Also, the race traditionally ended inside the chosen Olympic Stadium, but there have been a few deviations on this. For example, during the London Olympics in 2012, the start of the race, as well as the end was in the famous ‘The Mall’ road located in the city of Westminster.

The start and finish were also different in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, which was in a parade area known as the Sambódromo. Another tradition includes handing out the men’s medals for the marathon event at the closing ceremony. One of the countries that have produced many successful track and field runners, is the African country of Kenya. Many of the runners come from the Rift Valley Province.

The birth of Marathon mania

One of the more popular and well-known marathon events is the Boston Marathon. This marathon road race was inspired by the first Modern Olympics Marathon and first began in 1897 and now occurs annually. The route begins in Hopkinton, a town located in Massachusetts and continues onto Copley Square, a public square in the city of Boston. Marathon running grew in popularity in the United States, due to the American Johnny Hayes, who won the Summer Olympics in 1908. What is known as ‘Marathon Mania’ or an obsession with such events followed in 1908, starting with the Empire City Marathon in New York. What followed was a number of non-professional events, all held in the city of New York. All of these marathon races fell on or close to important occasions, such as New Year’s Day, and Lincoln’s Birthday etc.

There was an even bigger attraction created for the sport in 1972 when Frank Shorter won the Summer Olympics Marathon held in West Germany. In 2014, it was estimated that 550.600 participants finished a marathon event held in various location around the United States. Marathon events are now held, sometimes weekly, in many different countries around the world, each with thousands of runners participating.

Women Marathon Runners

Marathon running, for many years, was a male-dominated sport. The first women to run the distance was Stamata Revithi in 1896. She was unfortunately not mentioned in the official results. The first woman who was officially recognized was Marie-Louise Ledru, who ran and finished a marathon race in 1918. Finally, the first woman to have been formally timed in 1926, was Violet Piercy.

More Firsts for women:

  • Arlene Pieper completed the Pikes Peak Marathon In Colorado, she was the first women to finish a marathon in the United States in 1959.
  • Bobbi Gibb unofficially ran the Boston marathon in 1966. She has since also been acknowledged as the female winner for ’67 and ’68.
  • Katherine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon and was the first women to be officially recognized (having a number) in 1967. She was later disqualified because she ran in a race, which was meant only for male runners.

The Distance of the Marathon

To begin, the distance for a marathon race wasn’t clear, but during the first Games, 40km or 25 miles was considered the race length. This was the estimated distance from Marathon to Athens, along the longer route, during those times. Today’s marathon distance is set at 42.195km and was decided upon by the International Amateur Athletic Foundation or IAAF in 1921.

The races today do allow some leniency, but the final distance measured should be 42m over the official distance and not under. Those who are responsible for marking out the route, usually add about 1m per kilometre onto their measurements, in order to prevent any errors in the distance that might land below the required length.

IAAF rules govern the following:

  • Runners must be able to see markers, displayed in kilometres along the route.
  • World records will only be recognized by races that fall under the rules of the IAAF.
  • Professional events: timings must be issued at the midway mark, as well as at every 5km splits.
  • Runners can be recognized for world records, obtained at distances less than the full marathon. The distance must be endorsed by the IAAF, for example, a participant can be recognized for a world record at 20km, 30km etc. The participants will only be recognized for this if they run and complete the full marathon.

Popular Marathon Races

There are many marathon events held throughout the world every year. Many of these are organized by the AIMS or Association of International Marathons and Distance Races. This organization began in 1982 and since has organized events all over the world.

Marathon races worldwide:

  • The Biennial World Marathon Series: includes cities like Tokyo, New York, London, Chicago, Boston and Berlin. They award quite a large sum of money to both female and male participants.
  • Runner’s World nominated the ‘World’s Top Ten Marathons’ in 2006. These included marathons in Paris, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Honolulu amongst others.
  • The world’s oldest yearly marathon is the Boston Marathon, held annually since 1897.
  • Europe’s oldest marathon includes the Košice Peace Marathon, held in Slovakia.
  • The Polytechnic Marathon was held in or close to London, but due to increased traffic in the area amongst other issues, caused organizers to withdraw in 1996.
  • There is the Athens Classic Marathon, which follows the original Olympic route and finishes at the Panathenaic Stadium.
  • You have the more challenging destinations like the Midnight Sun Marathon in Tromsø in Norway.
  • There are even events being organized in areas like Antarctica, or in desert terrains.
  • Other extraordinary areas where marathon events have been organized include the Great Wall of China, amongst the wildlife in South Africa, the Great Tibetan Marathon high up in Northern India and how about the Polar North Marathon in Greenland.
  • The International Istanbul Eurasia Marathon: Here participants will run in two continents, in Europe and Asia, all in a single race.
  • The Detroit Free Press Marathon: runners pass over the Canadian and US borders twice.
  • The Niagara Falls International Marathon: This event includes one international border crossing.

The Wheelchair Division of the Marathon

Today, many of the marathons also provide opportunities for wheelchairs. Those who participate in this event, usually begin their race a bit earlier than everyone else.

Some interesting facts about the wheelchair division:

  • Ohio, 1974: This was where and when the very first wheelchair marathon took place.
  • Bob Hall won the first wheelchair marathon race in 1974
  • Hall then participated in the Boston Marathon in 1975, from then this division was included in the race. The event was then named the US National Wheelchair Championships from 1977.
  • Ernst van Dyk has won the Wheelchair division race in Boston a number of times and also holds the world record.
  • Jean Driscol has won eight times for the women’s wheelchair division and also holds a world record.
  • The prize money for first place in the Master Division is $10 000
  • Some of the fastest wheelchair athletes include Thomas Geierpichler from Austria and Heinz Frei from Switzerland.

New York City had a shaky start for wheelchair participants and was actually banned in 1977, due to safety issues. However, Bob Hall was allowed to compete, because the Division of Human Rights demanded the marathon organizers give reasons for the ban. It was also decided that wheelchair participants could compete in the New York City Marathon in 1979, and the New York Road Runners Club was directed to accept these athletes in the race. This was later settled in an appeal the following year.

Unfortunately, the State Supreme Court pronounced in 1981 that prohibiting wheelchair athletes was in no way discriminatory because the marathon was actually founded as a ‘foot race’. Due to the perseverance of some wheelchair athletes who still competed in the race over the next few years, their persistence earned them an official wheelchair division in 2000.

I hope that all the history and information about the marathon has motivated you to take on the challenge of running a marathon.