The History of Marathons

By Coach Dan, Red Group Head Coach
October 2016

Welcome to the fifth week of your Austin Fit Fall Training Program.   This Saturday, half marathoners will complete a 5 mile long-run.  Full Marathoners will run 7 miles.  That is more than 38% and 26% of your total respective marathon goal distances.

You may want to match you growing physical ability with an associated demonstrable expansion of your intellectual prowess regarding marathoning.  (This is useful when having to deflect boorish doubters of your athletic efforts).  After all, when you work this hard at a goal, no one has the right to spoil your party.

Believe me, nothing will silence those who question the sanity of preparing to run a 13.1 or 26.2 mile race better than demonstrating that you have a  greater grasp of classical history than they do.

You’re right!  It is “above and beyond” the duties of your coaching staff to provide you with this information.  However, our concern about your welfare extends beyond Saturday morning and weekday training efforts.  First, in response to the boorish inquirer’s predictable question: “why would you or anyone else run 13.1 or 26.2 miles?”  And their pronouncement that “you or anyone else that would attempt such a feat is obviously insane!”

Don’t leave the party early, apologizing for or feeling embarrassed about your athletic achievements to date or your lofty marathon goal. Consider countering with several questions of your own.  Ask the boorish individual:

  • Do you know why marathons are called marathons?
  • Do you know who ran the first marathon?
  • Did you know what role the first marathoner played in “saving democracy for the world”?
  • Do you know why marathons are 26.2 miles long?

You then may look at them sympathetically and exclaim “you apparently don’t know much about ancient history, or very much about what the British Royal family was up to in the early 19th century.”

Your questioner will undoubtedly look at you with a blank stare.  You can then, with the information provided in this communication, provide them with an answer that will both impress them (and everyone within earshot) with your background in Classical history and more importantly, silence the sedentary boor for the remainder of your social encounter (They may leave the party early!)

Philippides, an Athenian by birth, was the original “marathoner”.  He was employed as a herald or “Day Runner”.  He was the ancient Greek version of “Federal Express” and made his living quickly running news and messages back and forth between Greek City States.  The Greek city states, with the world’s first democratic governments, were constantly under threat by the monarchs of the large kingdom of Persia

On August 12th  of 490 BC, Persian King Darius invaded Greece; intent upon destroying Athens.  His navy landed the Persian Army of 50,000 soldiers and marines on the Greek Coast at a place called Marathon.  The Athenian army was about 11,000 men.  The invasion was the culmination of the first attempt by Persia to subjugate Greece.

Before leaving Athens and heading toward Marathon to confront the invading Persians, Miltiades, the general of the Athenian army decided he really could use some assistance.  So he sent Philippides over the mountains to Sparta to ask the Spartans to send their army to join the Athenians at Marathon.

Philippides “lit out” for Sparta; a 150 mile run over mountainous terrain.  He covered the 150 miles in 36 hours (a 14:42) per mile pace.  By the way, I know that a 14:42 per mile pace will not impress some of you.  But in Philippides defense: it was August 12th and very, very warm; aid stations were few and far between; running shoes had not yet been invented; and, oh yeah, I forgot to mention, he was running up and down steep mountain trails.


 The Spartans indicated that they were certainly willing to come to the aid of the Athenians.  But, there was a glitch. Their religious laws prevented them from going to war until the moon was full.  That delay meant Spartan soldiers would not likely be at Marathon in time to help the Athenians.

Philippides ran the reverse 150 miles (same mountains) back to Marathon to deliver the bad news to Miltiades that the Spartans would not be arriving any time soon.

Evidently, Miltiades was not fazed by the lack of Spartan participation.  He promptly took his 11,000 Athenians, including Philippides, and attacked King Darius’s 50,000 Persians.


 The result of the unexpected Athenian assault was a Persian rout!  Persians fled back to their ships in disarray.  The Athenian victory was complete.  The Persians lost more than 6,400 men.  Athenians casualties were 192.

Athenian General Miltiades wanted to get the word of the victory at Marathon back to Athens immediately.  He was also wanted to warn the citizens of Athens that there could well be a second Persian assault against Athens itself.  He wanted the city to prepare for that possibility.

So Philippides, after running the 300 miles round trip to Sparta from Marathon and then fighting the Persians, gets tasked with the job of running to Athens to carry General Miltiades’ message.

The run to Athens was 21.4 miles.  It included a very steep initial climb of more than 5 kilometers, a westward climb along the eastern and northern slopes of Mount Penteli to the pass of Dionysos, and then a straight southward downhill path to Athens.

Overheated, dehydrated, exhausted, in August heat, in full armor, Philippides ran the 22 mile mountain trail at an average 8:11 pace.  (You won’t be wearing body armor during your marathon.)

He burst through the doors of the Athenian Senate and shouted Hail! We are victorious! And died. (You won’t be doing that after your marathon.)
The first marathon race was held at the first modern Olympic games in Athens in 1896.  The race course was 25 miles, following a longer but less challenging route from Marathon to Athens than the one traversed by Philippides.
25 miles remained the more or less standard length for marathons until 1907.  At the 1908 Olympic Games in London the course was extended increased to 26.2 miles to accommodate the British royal family.
Queen Alexandra requested that the race start on the lawn of Windsor Castle (so the littlest royals could watch from the window of their nursery)
                                                Image result for little royals queen alexandra 1908                       
and finish in front of the royal box at the Olympic stadium—a distance that happened to be 26.2 miles (26 miles and 385 yards).
                                                                        Image result for queen alexandra 1908
That increased marathon mileage was formally adopted by the International Amateur Athletic Federation in1921.  Marathons have been 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers) in length ever since.