1. The modern marathon was inspired by a poem
It’s well known that the marathon has its roots in Ancient Greece: Athenian herald Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of victory in the Battle of Marathon and then collapsed and died, which inspired the creators of the modern event.
1908 Olympic marathon winner Johnny Hayes is paraded around the track at the White City Stadium in London (image: Getty)
The story itself is probably just a romantic myth but it did inspire the creation of the marathon as a sporting event for the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. The course for that race began in the town of Marathon and finished in Athens’ Panathenaic Stadium.
The reason the tale was on the mind of the founder of the Olympics, Pierre de Coubertain, when he established the marathon was a poem popular at the time: Robert Browning’s 1879 work about Pheidippides was the real inspiration for the event.
2. The marathon is 26 miles 385 yards because of a royal box in West London
The route of that first marathon in 1896 was about 25 miles (or 40 kilometres), not the 26 miles 385 yards that is standard today. The marathon’s current length actually derives from the London Olympics of 1908.
The 1908 organisers wanted the marathon to start at Windsor Castle and finish in front of the royal box at the White City Stadium where the games were being held. When measured, that distance came to the 26.2 miles (42.195km) we now call a marathon.
Although that was its length in 1908, the marathon’s distance continued to vary over the next couple of decades. The shortest Olympic marathons were the 40km of 1896 and 1904, the longest was at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp at 42.75km.
It was only in May 1921 that the International Amateur Athletic Federation decided on a settled distance, and they chose the distance of the course for the 1908 London Olympics – probably because they were based in London at the time.
3. Women were only ‘allowed’ to run marathons after Roberta Gibb did so illegally in 1966
Although the men’s marathon was run at that very first Olympics in 1896, there wasn’t a women’s Olympic marathon until as late as 1984. In fact, women were prohibited from competing at distances of more that 1.5 miles by the Amateur Athletics Union until 1972. It took the courageous actions of runner Roberta Gibb to help bring an end to that rule.
In 1966, after applying to run officially in the Boston marathon and receiving a letter from the organisers stating that “women are not physiologically able to run a marathon”, Gibb decided to run it anyway.
On the day of the race she dressed in an oversized hoodie and her brother’s Bermuda shorts, hid in a forsythia bush near the start line and, as the male runners got underway, out she popped and joined the race. 3 hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds later she had completed the course ahead of two thirds of the male competitors.
She repeated the feat again over the next couple of years, proving that women could compete and leading to the end of the ban on them doing so. In 1996, to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of her first run, the Boston Athletics Association officially recognised Gibb’s victories and her name was added to the roster of other winners inscribed on the Boston Marathon Memorial in Copley Square, Boston.
Paula Radcliffe during her world record breaking run in the London marathon in 2003 (image: Getty)
4. Paula Radcliffe got her period the day she broke the marathon world record
Having finished just nine seconds off world record pace when she ran her very first competitive marathon, Paula Radcliffe was certain she was in with a chance of breaking that world record when she lined up for her second attempt in Chicago in 2002.
But, as she explains on The Question of Sport Podcast, the circumstances were not perfect: “I got to Chicago, and it was freezing. It was well below freezing at the start, and a little bit of a cold wind, so not exactly ideal. Plus I got my period the day of the race which wasn’t ideal either. But then, once the race got going, I felt good and it went well, and I was racing the existing world record holder [Catherine Ndreba] at the time. So first thing was to make sure I beat her. The second thing was to try and get the time”.
She did just that, clocking in at 2:17:18, a world record. She shaved another 1 minute 53 seconds off in London the following year.
5. The 1904 Olympic marathon was the craziest of all time
The third modern Olympic Games took place in St Louis in Missouri in the USA, and its marathon event was undoubtedly the worst ever. It involved strychnine poisoning, an experiment in “purposeful dehydration” by not providing water points for the runners, the first finisher hitchhiking nine miles of the race and two competing South Africans being chased off course by wild dogs.
Few completed the race, with many who tried collapsing after getting caught in dust clouds kicked up by the race officials’ cars. The guy who finished fourth had a lengthy nap after eating rotten apples and the eventual winner had to be carried across the line by his support team. It was wild.
Hear the full story on The Question of Sport Podcast: Paula Radcliffe and the Worst Marathon Ever.