The Marathon: A Brief History

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."