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15 October 2014, 12pm

Marathon History

by Hugh Jones

The Marathon as we know it today is not yet 120 years old, but there have been forms of long distance races since the time of the ancient Egyptians.

The Marathon has been an Olympic distance since the modern Olympics started in 1896, but nothing like it was ever seen in the ancient Olympics, run from 776BC to 261AD. The longest race then was less than 5km. The Marathon was adopted as a central part of the modern Olympic programme, and takes place in countless cities all over the world today, purely because of its popular appeal to the imagination.

Humans had once run distances far greater than a marathon. As a hunter, one of man’s greatest assets was his stamina. He would run his prey ragged. The hunted animal would bound away to apparent safety, only for the dogged hunter to turn up alongside again. This would go on until the animal, squandering its energy in nervous bursts, was rendered too exhausted to resist.

Such obvious purpose to running was undermined as weaponry became more sophisticated, and humans able to kill at remote distance. In Egyptian times running was prized as a military skill. King Taharka instituted a long distance race specifically to keep his army up to scratch. The distance was coincidentally close to 100km, contested today as the standard “ultradistance” event. The race itself has been revived in recent years as the “Pharaonic 100km”, run from the Hawara pyramid at El Faioum to the Sakkara pyramids to the south-west of Cairo.

The most accomplished runners, both within the military and in civilian society, served as messengers up to the beginning of the nineteenth century and, over rough country, were better than a horse.

The tale upon which the modern Olympic Marathon rests is the mythic run of Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens. He was a professional messenger and, in 490BC, is supposed to have brought a message from the plains of Marathon, where the Greek Army had just won a crucial battle against the invading Persian Army of General Datis. After the battle, in which he may have taken part, he was dispatched to Athens to deliver the news: “Rejoice, we are victorious”. He did this, and no more, dropping dead with the delivery.

There are many variations of this story, most of them more plausible than this version. The Greeks may have been victorious, but the battle had not been conclusive, as the rest of the Greek Army was marching towards Athens to forestall a Persian landing much closer to the city. The most contemporaneous historian, Herodotus, wrote 50 years later that Pheidippides had been sent from Athens to Sparta, before the battle, to request help. He does not mention whether Pheidippides returned with the Spartan reply (which was: “No”). The Spartathlon race, which is held today over a distance of 240km, commemorates this slightly more likely version of events.

Likely or not, Pheidippides’ death run from Marathon to Athens was incorporated into a poem by Robert Browning, and this accounts for the currency it had at the time Baron Pierre de Coubertin was attempting to resurrect the Olympic Games for the modern era.

De Coubertin was a Frenchman, who had grown up at a time of national shame. Trounced in the Franco-Prussian War, the French had lost national territory, been forced to pay reparations and forbidden a national army while Prussian troops occupied the country. There followed a civil war which further weakened French national standing. De Coubertin sought reasons for this weakness, and the apparent strength of France’s rival powers, Britain and Prussia.

He latched on to Britain’s “public” schools, and in particular their emphasis on sporting endeavour, as a crucial factor in building national character. On a tour of Britain he met William Brookes, founder of the Much Wenlock Olympic Society, which had already held its inaugural event in 1850, followed up in 1859 and 1885. De Coubertin attempted both to make sport compulsory in French schools and to promote an international sporting festival also based upon the ancient Olympics.

He launched his Olympic campaign in 1892, and two years later formed the International Olympic Committee at the Sorbonne. The delegates agreed to promote the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, and subsequently at intervals of four years. One of the delegates was Michel Breal, who argued for a long-distance race as one of the events, and dusted off the hoary old story of Pheidippides in support. He carried his argument, but the Greek Government also had to be convinced that the Olympics should be held at all. Click here for a fuller account of Breal’s support for an Olympic ‘Marathon’ .

As has happened so often since, the authorities saw the Olympics as a means by which to galvanise national feeling. The Royal Family became involved and contributions from the Greek diaspora poured in. Vast sums were expended in building a marble replica of the stadium at Olympia, and the first Olympic Marathon was run from Marathon Bridge to this stadium in Athens, over a distance of 40km.

In the months leading up to the Olympic race there were several attempts to run this course. In February 1896 two runners departed from Athens and completed the distance but one of them, foreshadowing many similar instances, took a ride for part of the way.

A month before the Olympic race a Greek Championship event was held, in which 11 competitors ran from Marathon to Athens. This was the first ever Marathon race. Two weeks later there was another, billed as an official trial and attracting 38 entrants. The winner recorded 3:11:27, and a water-carrier named Spiridon Louis finished fifth in 3:18:27. On a separate occasion at that time two women, Melpomene and Stamathis Rovithi, were also reported to have run from Marathon to Athens.

Eighteen men lined up at the start of the first Olympic Marathon on 10 April 1896. Of the four foreign runners only Gyula Kellner, a Hungarian, had run the distance before as a time trial. The three others had run in the middle distances at the Games and were chancing to little more than luck that they would stay the course.

The Greek organisers seemed better prepared, and had already made some arrangements which remain as standard practice to this day: refreshment stations were dotted along the course, a cavalry officer acted as a lead vehicle and soldiers were used as race marshals to keep the public off the course and assist stricken competitors. Personal drinks were allowed, to be administered by the runner’s own personal assistant: drug testing was only introduced many decades later and performance-affecting substances were consumed with gusto, but probably to little benefit.

The three foreign middle-distance runners lasted surprisingly well, retiring at 23km, 32km and 37km. Spridon Louis had taken the lead from the last of these, the Australian Edwin Flack, at about 33km. The starter, one Colonel Papadiamantopoulos, who seemed to be acting as race referee, then rode ahead to inform the waiting crowed in the stadium. Louis did not disappoint, and led by a literal mile as he entered the stadium to win in a time of 2:58:50. Greeks took second and third until Kellner, who had come in fourth, protested that the third Greek, Spiridon Belokas, had taken a ride – something that was becoming almost common practice. Nine runners finished the race.

The Marathon was now established, perhaps better established than the Olympics themselves, whose next two showings in Paris and St Louis bordered on the farcical. The next Marathon was held only two months later, from Paris to the outlying town of Conflans.

A century before, once running had ceased to be the most efficient means of relaying messages, those wealthy people who had employed couriers had discovered another purpose to running. It provided an ideal spectacle upon which to lay bets. Races were arranged solely for this purpose throughout most of the nineteenth century. In Britain, after about 1860, gentlemen’s “Hare and Hounds” or “Harrier” running clubs were formed, mainly for paper chasing, an early form of cross-country running.

The clubs were put under the regulation of the Amateur Athletic Association, formed in Oxford in 1880. The very name advertised the disdain with which they viewed the betting fraternity and the “professional” runners. A stand-off developed in which De Coubertin was decidedly with the amateurs. An Italian had his entry to the inaugural Olympic Marathon turned down on the grounds that he was professional. But a Marathon was as good a race on which to gamble as any other, perhaps more so, as its duration allowed for a greater repertoire of dirty tricks to be brought into play.

Paris-Conflans was a professional promotion, and offered a bonus for breaking Louis’ Olympic time. An English builder, Len Hurst, collected the money by recording 2:31:30. the distance was quoted as 40km, but methods of measurement were unreliable and could be subject to the influence of ambitious organisers eager for fast times.

Over in the United States, the New York Athletic Club organised a Marathon over 25 miles – almost an imperial conversion of the earlier races, being 40.23km. The groundbreaking nature of the race was demonstrated by only 10 of the 30-strong field finishing, the first of them in a time almost half an hour slower than Louis.

The runner who had retired at 23km in Athens was Arthur Blake, a member of the Boston Athletic Association who was not at all put off by his first abortive experience. Within a year, on 15 March 1897, the first of the BAA Boston Marathons was held. The race has been held every year since (except for 1918 when a military Marathon relay substituted), making Boston the oldest Marathon race in the world.

Like the earlier New York race, it was run from point to point, mainly downhill from Ashland (it now starts a little further west in Hopkinton) to downtown Boston. The winner was the New York victor, John McDermott, who improved to 2:55:10 – although the course length was given as 39km.

Apart from Boston most Marathons continued to be held over 40km or 25 miles, including both the Paris and St Louis Olympic races – although the St Louis race, exceptionally, turned out to be over distance. Races spread to South Africa and England, the host country for the 1908 Olympics.

The Franco-British Exhibition was being held at the new White City Stadium in West London, where the Olympic Marathon was to finish in front of the royal box from which Queen Alexandra would watch. Preserving the royal theme, the start was to be at Windsor Castle. The length was fixed at 26 miles (41.84km) and seems to have been measured very conscientiously. A late request from the Queen, to move the start back to the East Lawn of Windsor Castle, from where it could be seen by the royal children in their nursery, added a further 385 yards (352m).

Those 385 yards proved too much for the first over the finishing line, the Italian Dorando Pietri. Pietri had run a relatively steady race, although nearly all runners started off at a furious pace (the leader passing 10 miles within 57 minutes). By the last few miles the pace of most runners was at least two minutes per mile slower. Shortly before entering the Stadium Pietri overtook the South African Charles Hefferon, who had led the race from 15 miles. Catching the leader proved too much, and on the track Pietri staggered and fell four times before being assisted over the finishing line by race officials. The race was awarded to an American, Johnny Hayes, who finished without “unfair” assistance 32 seconds later. Click here for a fuller account of this defining race.

Pietri’s distress was temporary and he recovered quickly. Less fortunate was a Portuguese competitor in the following Olympics held in Stockholm. Twenty-year old Francisco Lazaro was three times national champion and possessed a doctor’s certificate pronouncing him fit to run the Marathon. But Marathon day dawned hot, and the race was set off at 13.45 in the full glare of the sun. Lazaro reached 30km before he collapsed and was taken to hospital. Suffering from heat exhaustion, he died the following day. Click here for a fuller account of the Stockholm race. This is the only instance of death in Olympic Marathons, although fatalities in mass-participation Marathons do occur. In several countries race organisers now require medical certificates, much as Lazaro had produced, before confirming any entrant.

The specific Marathon distance determined so haphazardly in London was eventually adopted as the official length of a Marathon, but not until 16 years later. The distance stands today in metric form as 42,195m. Meanwhile Marathons continued to be run at varying distances, the longest of which was probably the 1920 Olympic Marathon in Antwerp, at 42,750m.

Another consequence of the London Olympics was that the British, disappointed by the poor performances of their runners (who had led the mad charge out of Windsor), held an annual Polytechnic Marathon, named after the organising club, over the same course. This became the stage for many world-beating performances, from the inaugural race in 1909 (Henry Barrett, 2:42:31) through the golden years of Jim Peters (1951-4, during which he reduced the world record to 2:20:43, 2:18:41 and then 2:17:40) to the 1960s (1963 Basil Heatley, 2:14:26; 1964 Buddy Edelen, 2:13:55; 1965 Morio Shigematsu, 2:12:00).

Apart from the Olympic Marathon and Boston, there were few other significant races established before the Second World War. The Kosice Marathon in Slovakia, founded in 1924, is still run today and has taken over from “The Poly” as the oldest Marathon in Europe.

After 1945 Marathons were started in Japan at Fukuoka (1947), Twente in Holland (1948) and the Athens Classical Marathon was resurrected over the original 1896 course (with an additional 2195m) in 1955.

The Japanese took to Marathon running with enthusiasm, and by the 1960s the Fukuoka race was indisputably the best in the world. It was an elite race, featuring the top Japanese and a few runners invited from overseas, and drew widespread public attention. Other races at this time may have had more runners, although none had more than a few hundred, but no other had the quality of Fukuoka. Toru Terasawa had already run 2:16:19 in 1962, but in the 1967 race the Australian Derek Clayton reduced the record to 2:09:37

Clayton purportedly beat his own record time in 1969 in Antwerp, recording 2:08:33.6. the figures had a spurious accuracy to them. Doubts about the accuracy of the course have never been conclusively resolved, since the method of measurement employed by the organisers, the average of car odometer readings, is known to be extremely unreliable.

At the same time as the top Marathon runners were beginning to run inside five-minute mile pace for the distance, the seeds of a popular revolution were being planted. A New Yorker, Fred Lebow, organised a Marathon on a shoestring, comprising a short lap to start and then four full laps of Central Park. Attracting little over 100 runners it was no different to many other races at the time, struggling to find the space on the road, a modest budget and enough competitors to make it all worthwhile.

The number of runners grew slowly but steadily, and Lebow secured a sponsorship deal with Olympic Airlines for the 1973 race. Frank Shorter’s win in the 1972 Olympics had raised the profile of Marathon running in the USA, and by 1975 participation had risen to 500, although the Boston Marathon had already grown to accommodate 1800 runners. The sponsorship lapsed, and Lebow was thrown back onto his own resources.

The American Bicentennial fell in 1976, and Lebow used his connections with City Hall to move the Marathon out of Central Park and run it through the five boroughs of the City. The big city Marathon was born. Click here for a more complete account of this momentous change. The route started at the Staten Island end of the Verazzano Narrows Bridge and ran through all the various ethnic districts of Brooklyn before crossing into Queens at halfway, and then over the 59th Street Bridge at 25km. Up First Avenue for 5km before passing into the Bronx, runners then returned to Manhattan on Fifth Avenue through Harlem, turning into Central Park only for the final 5km. Shorter himself lined up for this race, alongside Bill Rodgers who had won the Boston Marathon in 1975 and now recorded the first of four consecutive wins in New York.

Some 1500 more runners finished behind Rodgers in the first-ever Marathon race for the masses. A new era had begun as cities elsewhere in the world aspired to emulate Lebow’s achievement in putting the Marathon at the forefront of public attention. People could not help but notice the new phenomenon when it took place through the centre of the cities in which they lived.

Berlin established not just a city-wide Marathon in 1980, but also a 25km race on a different date. The London Marathon was first held in 1981, after Chris Brasher, overwhelmed by his experience of the 1979 New York Marathon, resolved to organise something similar in London. The race grew from 7000 runners in the first year to leapfrog New York’s numbers by the second, as 16,000 runners finished the race.

Suddenly, no major world city was complete without its own Marathon, and a lot of minor cities got in on the act, too. Inclusiveness was the watchword, as many cities tried using Marathons to boost their tourist industries. In a marked turn-around from pre-New York days, women, as well as men, were welcome.

The 1967 Boston Marathon had gained notoriety when an official tried to eject a woman in mid-race (Katherine Switzer, who had entered under her initial and surname only). Although the attempt was unsuccessful few other Marathons at the time were more accommodating. A few women had run the distance over the years, particularly from the early 1960s, but no international Championship incorporated a women’s Marathon.

The burgeoning mass movement changed all that. New York admitted women from the inaugural 1970 race and Boston followed suit in 1972, as women increasingly moved centre stage. The Norwegian Grete Waitz, on the verge of retiring from competition at shorter distances, ran New York in 1978 and set a truly respectable women’s record of 2:32:30. She reduced it to 2:27:33 in 1979 and 2:25:41 in 1980. Click here for a fuller account of the development of women’s marathon running in the late 1970s.

In September 1982 the European Championships incorporated a women’s marathon for the first time, won by Rosa Mota in 2:36:04 over the classic Marathon to Athens route. Mota finished third in the inaugural women’s Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles two years later, behind Joan Benoit’s 2:24:52 and Waitz’s 2:26:18. Fourth in that race was Waitz’s compatriot, Ingrid Kristiansen, who established a record 2:21:06 in the following year in London, which stood for 13 years.

Derek Clayton’s disputed men’s record from Antwerp nearly survived that long, until Alberto Salazar broke it by winning the 1981 New York Marathon. Unfortunately, when the course was checked by relatively newly accepted accurate methods in 1985 it was found to be short by about 150m. Australia’s Rob DeCastella had run 2:08:18 in Fukuoka six weeks after Salazar’s performance. Welshman Steve Jones shaved 12 seconds off DeCastella’s time in the 1984 Chicago Marathon, although Portugal’s Carlos Lopes, who had won the Olympic race that year, brought the time down to 2:07:12 in Rotterdam six months later.

Current records stand at 2:03:23 to Wilson Kipsang in the 2013 Berlin Marathon and 2:15:25 to Paula Radcliffe in the 2003 London Marathon. Radcliffe’s time is perhaps of more significance, as it reflects the growing competitiveness of women’s Marathon running. Waitz, Kristiansen and Mota were lonely pioneers – Rosa Mota won the 1987 World Championships (at which Kristiansen won the 10000m) by a margin of 2km. Radcliffe is also out on her own, but Naoko Takahashi and Catherine Ndereba broke 2:20 before she did, 50 years after Jim Peters did so.

There are other women who have approached or surpassed this mark since, and many of them are Kenyan. Another significant trend in the 1990s was towards Kenyan, and to a lesser extent Ethiopian domination of men’s and women’s distance running. Part of the explanation is the globalisation of a sport, freed from its amateur past, which offers rich rewards to those who excel.

But there are rewards of a different kind for all participants in the Marathon. Quite what they are is sometimes hard to define, but they are none the less real for that.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the copyright owner and the publishers.

Reproduced from “The Expert’s Guide to Marathon Training” (Hugh Jones, 2003) by kind permission of Carlton Books. This book can be purchased on (ISBN 1-84222-940-0; RRP £12.99) or or by clicking on the image below:


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