The Marathon: A Brief History

The marathon has been transformed into a talismanic calling for runners all over the world. The question is: why?

Posted: 23 March 2011
by Warren Pole

Credit: Pietari Posti

Marathons and legendary feats have been partners in crime for as long as any of us can remember. The event's beginnings can be traced back to the Greek soldier Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians.

When he arrived (naked, if you believe some paintings of the event), he breathlessly uttered a triumphant, "We have won," before promptly dying with all the epic timing of a Hollywood blockbuster. I should probably point out that there are almost as many variants of this story as there are years since it took place back in 490BC, but the important bit is that from its very inception, the marathon had a historic reputation of being hardcore.

Olympic recognition

So hardcore, in fact, that it would be another 2,386 years before the distance became an official Olympic race in 1896. But once the event was inaugurated, a tipping point occurred. Marathon momentum built up, leading to the peak it proudly sits at today: a major target for pros and amateurs alike.

In 1981, just 6,500 people ran the first London Marathon; last year 35,000 crossed the finish line. Not only are marathon numbers swelling, but the time taken for races to fill up is shrinking dramatically,  as supply struggles to keep up with demand. Last year, London filled its 12,000 ballot places within just three days, a whole 15 days faster than the previous fastest sign-up.With figures like these it's no surprise that more marathons are springing up to soak up demand.

Supply and demand

"Marathon running is booming," says Tom Naylor, one of the co-founders of the Brighton Marathon, which was held for the first time last April. "London sold out in record time last year, Edinburgh had its biggest race ever in 2010 [there were 9,495 finishers], and we're looking at 15,000 runners for Brighton 2011 - an event that's only in its second year. Marathon numbers are increasing because running is an easy sport to fit into our increasingly busy lives. You can run almost anywhere, and at any time."

It's not just the UK seeing a marathon increase: Berlin and Tokyo are selling out faster than ever too, and in the US last year there was a seven per cent increase overall in finishing numbers across its 268 marathons nationwide. And five of those races were new that year.

Beginner boom

One reason for the growth in marathons is that more and more runners are taking the plunge for the first time. As Naylor says, "Sixty-eight per cent of runners at Brighton 2010 were running their first marathon, and the figures look similar for 2011."

Sports psychologist Andrea Firth-Clark explains why many of these first-timers decide to sign up: "In 1977, the psychologist Albert Bandura originated a theory on self-efficacy, which is about confidence in your ability to perform a certain difficult task, like running a marathon.

"The theory suggests that this confidence is linked to seeing people you relate to achieving the same goal you're considering. In the case of the marathon, it could be a person you know who has run one, or even someone you don't - with the increase in celebrities running marathons, there is a plethora of role models out there running, too."

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Discuss this article

Obviously there are some variations but how was the 26.2 miles chosen - is it meant to be the same as the distance from Marathon to Athens?

Posted: 24/03/2011 at 20:22

Celebrities are *not* my inspiration; my colleagues are. Not many of my colleagues have run a marathon but their tireless efforts to be the very best in their chosen sports and at work just spur me on, no end. I love 'em.

 Ruddy celebrities... they're just people we don't know... what's the big deal.

 (Unless of course they are famous for having achieved something e.g. Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Paula Radcliffe)

Posted: 24/03/2011 at 20:43

not sure why 26.2

wish I could run as fast as Paula Radcliffe she is amazing
Posted: 26/03/2011 at 22:23

Everything you need to know...
Posted: 27/03/2011 at 02:05

Strange to think that if the marathon pioneers had taken a different view of history, the marathon distance might have been set at 22 miles!
Posted: 27/03/2011 at 13:30

Wish it bloody had...
Posted: 27/03/2011 at 13:45

The exact distance was moved to tie in with the grandstand at the London Olympics I believe!  Before that they just ran about 26 miles...
Posted: 27/03/2011 at 14:48

Anyhow, everybody has done a marathon these days. 

The Ultramarathon is the new marathon.

Posted: 28/03/2011 at 12:50

Does anyone know any stats regarding time. Having watched and worked at London for many years it seems that whilst the elite are getting quicker and there are more runners. The average time is getting significantly slower. When i went as a teenager around 1990 it seemed the average was around 3:30, but now it feels like 4:30-5 is the busiest period.

This is only my observation, but I'd quite like to know if this is correct and whether it is the same nationwide and worldwide.

Posted: 30/03/2011 at 09:15

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