The Planet Wave—Why A Marathon is Exactly 26 Miles, 385 Yards

October 13, 2011 Posted By: Bob "Wish" Wischnia

If you are running a marathon this fall (or already have run one), many thoughts will cross your mind during your long journey. And one just might be: Why the heck is a marathon precisely 26 miles, 385 yards? Or 42.195 kilometers for our metric friends?

It’s a good question, one that beginners and veteran marathoners all over the world have wondered for more than 100 years. Why such an odd distance has become the worldwide standard is rooted in the ancient past.

One might assume that the weird distance must have something to do with the Greeks who brought us the ancient Olympics. But the Greeks didn’t have any races longer than three miles in the Olympics. (Guess they didn’t have the Wave Rider.)

The Greeks did utilize messengers who ran long distances between cities to deliver news of the day. But these messengers were not considered great athletes. Instead, they were mere laborers who could tirelessly run long distances. One such laborer was Pheidippides who in BC 490 was told to run to Sparta from Athens to get some help after the Persians landed at Marathon. Our boy ended up covering 150 miles in two days.

Then, legend has it, the next day Pheidippides ran 24 miles from the Battle on the Plains of Marathon back to Athens to announce victory over the invading Persian army. Pheidippides supposedly yelled, “Rejoice. We conquer!” And then dropped dead. (If—by chance—you want to run the course our man Pheidippides did, the Athens Marathon, held on November 13th this year, covers the same ground. But it’s 26.2 miles.)

Still, it’s open to considerable debate among scholars whether Pheidippides ever did any such run, but when Baron de Coubertin of France revived the ancient Greek Olympics in 1896, a 24-mile race from Marathon to Athens to commemorate Pheidippides’ historic run was included, That race became the highlight of the Games when another Greek– Spiridon Louis–ran 2:58:50 to win the first Olympic Marathon.

Again, it was only 24 miles back then. When the Boston Marathon was run for the first time in 1897, nobody gave any thought to following the Olympic lead as far as exact distance, so 18 guys ran about 25 miles from Ashland to downtown Boston. (Little known fact: The first actual marathon in America was in 1896 and went from Columbus Circle in Stamford, Connecticut to Columbus Circle in New York City which is about the same distance as Boston.)

After Boston, the next two Olympic Marathons were held in 1900 in Paris and 1904 in St. Louis and both races were approximately 24 ½-25 miles.

Not until 1908 did the marathon distance become what we now consider the standard 26 miles, 385 yards. These Olympics were held in London and the marathon course was to start at Windsor Castle and pass through several villages before finishing at the White City Olympic Stadium which just so happened to be a distance of 26 miles.

Queen Alexandra of England planned to sit in her Royal Box at the stadium and Olympic organizers figured it would be a nice touch to have the marathoners finish the race right in front of her. One problem. Her box was on the opposite side of the tunnel from where the marathoners would enter the stadium which meant they would then have to run a half lap around the track inside the stadium to finish in front of the Queen’s box.

The distance from the tunnel to the Queen’s box was 385 yards. Since there wasn’t any standardized marathon distance, Olympic organizers decided to simply leave the 26-mile route as is and lengthen it by a mere 385 yards to 26 miles, 385 yards. After all, what’s another 385 yards?

As it turned out, that additional 385 yards was a bit too far for a tiny Italian runner. In what was the most famous marathon in Olympic history, Dorando Pietri of Italy entered the stadium as the first runner, but turned the wrong way on the track after being turned around, collapsed on the track at the 26-mile mark with just 385 yards to go in the oppressive heat. One of the running heroes of his day, Pietri was assisted to his feet by officials (a no-no). The delirious Italian was half dragged the extra distance by officials and finally staggered first across the finish line. Unfortunately for him, he was later disqualified and the gold medal went to Johnny Hayes of the United States (one of only three American men to ever win the Olympic marathon.) Pietri would have won if the course had been 26 miles.

Four years later, the Olympics were in Stockholm. At the time, Scandinavian marathon courses were still about 40 kilometers in length and even though the race started and finished in the Olympic stadium, no change was made to the distance to match up with London four years earlier.

Boston had changed its distance too. In 1907, it lengthened its course from 24 miles to 26 as the start was moved from Ashland a few miles west to Hopkinton. But this was done to have a wider start and avoid some railroad tracks. Still, it wasn’t the 26 mile, 385-yard distance.

The first American marathon to utilize the 26 mile, 385-yard distance was in Yonkers, New York. On New Year’s Day of 1909, the 26.2-mile marathon distance was used for the first time in America with Bob Fowler of Cambridge, Massachusetts winning in the fastest time in the world in 2:52:54.

Ironically, the Olympics would not adopt the 26 mile, 385-yard distance until 1924 when the Olympics returned to Paris for the second time. (In 1920, the Olympic marathon course in Antwerp was actually too long.) But in Paris, the marathon distance was standardized as 42.195 kilometers or 26 miles, 385 yards—the exact same distance as the 1908 London Olympics.

There is no record of why the International Amateur Athletics Federation (the governing body of track and field) decided that this would be the distance for marathons all over the world. But there appears to have been a heavy British influence on the committee that decided this which may explain why it reverted back to the distance of the famed 1908 Olympic Marathon of 26 miles, 385 yards.

That extra 385 yards might not seem like much, but after running 26 miles, it can seem like an eternity. It takes most tired and depleted marathoners an additional two or three minutes to cover the last 385 yards.

And now you know who to blame/thank for the additional 385 yards: The Queen of England.

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