Distance Of The Marathon and How they came up with it

This weeks Marathon Monday feature is about the distance of the marathon and how the International Amateur Athletic Federation came up with the 26 miles 385 yards as the standard marathon distance in 1921.

The length of a marathon was not fixed at first the only thing that matter was that all runners competed on the same course.  The exact length of the first eight Olympic Marathon varied depending on the route each country established.The marathon in the first few Olympic games ranged from 24.85 miles (40 km) to 26.56 (40.2 km) roughly the distance from Marathon to Athens.  This distance was based on the legend of Pheidippides who was the messenger that is believed to have run from Marathon to Athens to announce the Persians had been defeated.  To read more about this legend read my blog “Origin of the Marathon”.

The standard distance for the marathon race was set by the International Amateur Athletic Federation in May 1921 at 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 km).

November 1907 the route for the 1908 London Olympic Marathon was published in the newspaper, starting at Windsor Castle and finishing at the Olympic Stadium.  The route had protests about the final few miles because of the tram-lines and cobbles so the route was revised to cross at Wormwood Scrubs instead.  This lengthened the route as did the plan to start the race at Queen Victoria’s statue at Windsor Castle.  The start was on the private East Terrace of Windsor Castle.  They had special permission from King Edward VII.  The start was on private grounds so that the public would not interfere with the race start.  From the statue  to the stadium was 26 miles plus a lap on the track made it 26 miles 586 yards and 2 feet.  The runners would use the Royal entrance as the marathon tunnel and finish in front of the Royal Box.  Shortly before the games officials realized that the Royal Entrance could not be used as the marathon entrance because it was raised to permit easy access for the Royal family from their carriages and didn’t open to the track.  An alternate entrance was chosen that was diagonally opposite the Royal box.  They had to build a special path to keep the distance at 26 miles from the statue to the box.  The finish line was left unchanged but to give the spectators (including the Queen) the best view of the race finish the runners ran clockwise on the track ( the opposite way one usually runs on the track).  This meant the distance run on the track was shortened to 385 yards.  The total distance was 26 miles 385 yards.

The finish of the 1908 Olympic Marathon had a dramatic finish.  Italian runner Dorando Pietri staggered around the final 385 yards of the race falling several times.   American Johnny Hayes was getting close until officials helped the Italian cross the finish line.  Dorando was disqualified and Hayes was awarded the Gold medal.  Queen Alexandra witnessing the race finish from the Royal box was so moved by the Italian determination that she presented him with a silver-gilt cup the next day.

After the 1908 Olympics the distance changed three more times In 1921 the International Amateur Federation decided to fix the distance of the Marathon at the 1908 distance of 26 miles 385 yards.  Dorando Pietri story is told often when talkng about marathons.  Maybe this is why runners joke the last 385 yards are the hardest.

Next weeks Marathon Monday feature will be about the Modern Olympic Marathon how did they come up with the idea?


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