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Monday, June 11, 2012

Why Are Marathons 26.2 Miles Long?

“My kids run marathons. Why are they 26.2 miles long? That seems like such an odd number.” The Newton Falls Public Library staff remembered that had something to do with the Ancient Greeks, but couldn’t remember the exact story for our patron.

We first went to Library Databases on our website, selected the Clevnet Databases, then Almanacs, Dictionaries & Encyclopedias, and Oxford Reference Online. It stated that “The standard marathon is 42.2km (26.2mi) long, which was the distance run by the ancient Greek soldier who brought news to Athens of victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC).”

Marathon Runner's Handbook by Bruce Fordyce (p.8) has several stories relating to the origins of the marathon and the distance. Fordyce says that “structured distance racing first appeared with the Ancient Greek Olympic Games which date back to 472 BC.” None raced the 42.2km at that time though. “The first official marathon of this distance was raced at the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens . . . the distance was standardized in 1908, at the Olympic Games held in London.”  He also tells three stories similar to the information in Oxford Reference Online, with runners running from Marathon to Athens and also from Athens to Sparta. The stories tell of “trained messengers running very long distances, but it is certain there was no distance remotely resembling a marathon at the Ancient Greek Olympic Games.”

The Ancient Olympics by Nigel Spivey (p.114) supports Fordyce, confirming that the original episode has become muddled in the retelling. It was for that first modern Olympics in 1896 that a course was mapped from Marathon to Athens, and the distance we view as a marathon set.

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