Why is a marathon called a marathon? What is the origin of the marathon? Why is the marathon 26.2 miles or 42.2 km? Or even better, 42 kilometers and 195 meters?  Many of you have probably asked yourselves these questions. Let’s try to find some answers.

Historical origins

The first answer points to the right origin of the Marathon, rooted into the history of ancient Greece.

Greece, before the rise of the roman empire, was characterized by an impressive cultural blooming.  Many social and technical disciplines today find their roots in the Greek culture. But Greece was also divide in city-states (poleis) often in war with each other. Famous the rivalry between Sparta and Athens, among others.

But Greeks found a common enemy in the Persians, that for centuries threatened with their army to invade and conquer Greece.

Famous the Thermopylaes battle, dated 480 B.C., where a small Greek army led by 300 Spartans faced a much bigger army from Xerxes’ Persian king, inspired cinema and graphic novels. The battle is part of what is called the second invasion of Greece.

If there is a second, there must have been a first. Ten years before in fact, Xerxes’ father, Darius, led another army in Greece with the same unfriendly intent. The battle of Marathon of 490 B.C. is part of this invasion. The greek army, led by Athens, prevailed.

Wait! What has all that to do with a long distance race?

The name Marathon comes from the legend of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger. The legend states that he was sent from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated. He had to run to Athens, just after surviving on the battlefield!

The legend says that he ran to inform Athens senate, and as soon as he delivered the message (νενικήκαμεν, “we wοn”) he died. The flatter road that connects the two cities is indeed a bit longer than 40 Km and it is currently part of the Athens Marathon.


Ok, but how did we go from about 40 km to more than 42 km (or from about 25.3 to 26.2 miles)?

To answer that, we have to jump in time to Athens Olympics 1896. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, restored in Athens the legend in a long distance run. The chosen distance was about 40 km, and the winner, Spyridon Louis, covered the course in a remarkable 2:58:50.


The ancient Olympic stadium, Athens


The distance was finally consolidated in the actual one (so yes, 42.2K or 26.2 miles) in 1908, for London Olympic games. The reason was to start the route exactly at Windsor castle, and finish it in front of the royal box in the stadium at London.

So, during your next marathon, if you want to blame someone in the last mile, you can think of the race officers of London Olympics 1908. Everything counts in that last mile! 😀


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