Marathon History

Illustration credit: Grace Sim (

Did Pheidippides really run a marathon and then keel over dead on the battlefield? John Stoneman explores the history of the marathon.

I first came across the legend of Pheidippides in a copy of the Victor Book for Boys when I was 10. The article described the story of the fabled Greek soldier who ran the 25 miles from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens in 490 BC to proclaim that the Persians had been defeated. Having fought in the battle, on delivering his news, he dropped dead from exhaustion.

This may well have happened. However today’s scholars are pretty confident that it’s a myth; our sources are only a handful of ancient Greek accounts, and 19th century poets such as Robert Browning. However, it was this fable that led to the introduction of a marathon race when the modern Olympics were introduced in 1896. The organisers were looking for an event which would capture the imagination of the public and recall the ancient glory of Greece, and this fit the bill.

Indeed, the fact that this story has little basis in historical fact has given rise to the classic definition of the marathon as a race over a distance chosen for no good reason, between runners who are mostly incapable of winning it, to commemorate an event which almost certainly never happened.

The first official marathon race was a Greek qualifying event before the 1896 Olympics, won by Charilaos Vasilikos. A month later, 17 runners from five different countries toed the start line in the town of Marathon, heading for the first Olympic marathon finish line in Athens. Only eight competitors went the full distance. The race was won in a time of 2hrs 58mins by the Greek runner Spyridon Louis.

Yet over a century later, millions of runners compete in thousands of these events every year. The clear majority are mass-participation runners who take on the challenge of 26.2 miles for an infinite number of personal reasons. For some it is the physical challenge, to others it is the mental battle. There are world record holders, charity fundraisers, club runners, bucket-listers, run-tourists – the classifications go on and on There is something about this sustained endurance event which resonates deep within the psyche of the human (ahem) race. It’s long enough to demand respect and yet short enough to be achievable by a wide range of people.

To argue that there is something in our programming which urges us to compete in marathons seems to have more than a kernel of truth. Humans have always used slow, steady running as a persistence hunting technique and our bodies have evolved to support that. Four-legged, fur-covered animals may be faster than us over short distances, but they eventually must stop and pant to reduce their body temperature. By contrast, the human ability to sweat on the move to regulate heat, and our upright physiology, meant we could pursue prey relentlessly to the point of their exhaustion. So we did it a lot, and we got better and better at it.

The sport of road running can trace its roots to the footmen servants of 18th century aristocrats, whose daily role was to run alongside their masters’ carriages. The aristos would wager on whose man was best. Long-distance races would be organised to settle the bets, to the point where the servants would spend more time training for this purpose.

But the more observant of you may have noticed that when we started our marathons in 1896 we were competing over the Marathon to Athens distance of 25 miles. Yet the last time I checked (on mile 25 of the 2017 Braintree Boggle), we seem to have accrued a mile and a bit. This was thanks to the ‘marathon mania’ that followed the 1908 London Olympics victory of American Johnny Hayes, in one of the most controversial marathon finishes ever seen.

Hayes crossed the line in second place having been beaten by Dorando Pietri from Italy. Pietri, exhausted and disoriented, stumbled around the last lap of the Olympic stadium and was eventually helped across the finish line by the clerk of the course and chief medical officer, captured in one of the most iconic marathon photos ever. Hayes protested and Pietri was disqualified. The dramatic story caught the imagination of the American public, who immediately laced up their running boots and started taking to the streets along the same distance as Hayes and Pietri.

Dorando Pietri at the end of the 1908 Olympic Marathon

Sadly, for the millions of us that have ever got to mile 25 in a subsequent race, the organisers of the 1908 marathon had added an additional mile to the race. This was to allow it to start at Windsor Castle in front of Queen Alexandra, plus another 385 yards around the White City track. That distance became frozen in time.

The marathon grew in popularity, with races such as the Polytechnic and Boston staging annual marathons. However, these were still the domain of the exalted few that could cover the gruelling distance in a punchy time. The race which is credited with changing all of this was the marathon of the 1972 Munich Olympics. Won by Frank Shorter, it was the first American win since Johnny Hayes. During the summer games, the world had been stunned by the death of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches in the Munich massacre, and had seen a dramatic ending to a Cold War basketball final between the USA and Russia. Television pictures showed Shorter entering the stadium in the lead, only for a hoax runner, Norbert Sudhaus, to appear suddenly ahead of him. It was a hugely influential piece of televised sports history, which again wired a nation into lacing up its collective trainers.

In 1976, city officials in New York were preparing to celebrate the bicentennial of the city. They introduced a course which traversed the five boroughs, and a club runner event evolved into the largest mass-participation marathon in the world. Former Olympic Champion and journalist Chris Brasher competed in New York in 1979 and wondered out loud in an Observer article: “whether London could stage such a festival?”. Two years later, American Dick Beardsley and Inge Simonsen from Norway held hands as they crossed the line together in the inaugural London Marathon.

London and New York are now two legs of the World Marathon Majors, the other four being Tokyo, Chicago, Berlin and Boston. All but the latter are mass participation events where you can ballot or buy your way in. In Boston it’s still (mainly) about qualifying times. But spend ten seconds researching the web these days and you will find the thousands of 26.2s taking place around the globe on a weekly basis. I’m sure that many Serpies will already have the marathon notch on their belts. If you’ve not had a go yet, I can only recommend it. And if you’re ever in Marathon, be sure to visit Pheidippides’ statue. Oh, and if you are new to the distance don’t forget to shout ‘God Save The Queen’ at mile 25, or something perhaps a touch less respectful.

John Stoneman is a 40-something middle of the pack runner who joined Serpentine because he liked the colour of the kit.

Grace Sim did the illustration for this article. Go and see her artwork in person - she has an Open Art Studio event in Oxfordshire in May, 13th-21st. See her website (link below) for more details.