How a Marathon Works

History of the Marathon

Spiridon Louis receives his gold medal after winning the marathon at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.
Spiridon Louis receives his gold medal after winning the marathon at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.
IOC/Olympic Museum /Allsport courtesy Getty Images

The marathon's origins stretch all the way back to ancient Greece. The late fifth century B.C. was a tumultuous time for Athens. Neighboring Persians hoped to overtake the city, and they had the military power to do it, outnumbering Athenians nearly five to one [source: Galloway].

The Greeks relied on fleet-footed messengers during wartime. These messengers covered the rocky and mountainous terrain and served as informational diplomats. Jeff Galloway explains that "they were expected to not only deliver the news but to also interpret it, emphasize key points, and return with a reply, including a description of the facial expression and emotion of the recipient" [source: Galloway].

Phidippides was the Athenian army's messenger. Around 490 B.C., he was sent from the army's stronghold at Marathon to Sparta, where he asked for the Spartans' help fighting off the Persians. The trek likely took him a day and a half -- and the Spartans' answer had been a disappointing "no." Phidippides returned to Marathon a day and a half later.

The Athenians eventually outmaneuvered the Persians. Celebration was short-lived: The army had to spread the word to the city. The Athenians were planning to burn their city to elude victorious marauders. Once again, Phidippides hit the ground running. According to legend, the exhausted runner managed to make it to his destination only to gasp out "Nike" (Greek for "victory") before he collapsed and died [source: Galloway].

In 1896, the year of the first modern Olympic Games, the marathon was recreated as an athletic event. Pierre de Coubertin was the mastermind behind the games, but it was co-organizer Michel Breal who proposed including a race commemorating Phidippides' legendary trek. The race -- dubbed "marathon" after the messenger's starting point -- was nearly 25 miles (40.2 kilometers) long.

Enthused race supporters called it the ultimate homage to the ancient Greeks, whose minds had conceived of the Olympics. But detractors argued that the race was unsafe: The weather would be too hot and the distance far too long for man to survive it.

Nonetheless, the marathon remained on the itinerary -- and the Greeks were favored to win. Their marathon team was carefully selected through trial races over the marathon course. A few sources give credence to detractors' warnings by claiming that three men died during these trials [source: Lovett]. The fastest time among these trial finishers was around 3:18 (Charilaos Vasilakos); and a second trial produced a finisher who clocked 3:11:27 (Mr. Lavrentis -- first name unknown). The Greeks finally chose 13 men for their team -- which made up the bulk of the 17 competitors.

Spiridon Louis (who placed only fifth in the second set of trials) took first place in the race with a time of 2:28:50 [source: Lovett]. He even stopped halfway through the race at Pikermi to have a glass of wine. Vasilakos came in second place.

In 1908, when London hosted the Olympic Games, the marathon track was extended to its current 26.2 miles at the behest of King Edward VII's wife, Alexandra, who asked that the course start by the palace. Her request was obliged, adding 1.2 miles to the already trepid distance.

A course of 26.2 miles is no simple feat. Next, we'll discuss some factors to consider when deliberating the distance.