Title: The Road to 26.2
It all started with a guy named Pheidippides.
In 490 BC, he ran 40 kilometers - about 25 miles - from the city of Marathon to Athens, to announce that they, the Greeks, had defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. He proclaimed his news… and then collapsed and died.
When the modern Olympics began in 1896 - hosted in Athens - the marathon route was revived, following the 40 kilometer route that could have been Pheidippides’ path, with the winner finishing in just under three hours. But, you ask - no one’s getting tattoos of 25.0 on their feet: Why are modern marathoners running longer than the original distance?
Well, the initial distance of 40 km remained the rough distance for races for a few years until 1908. In these London Olympics, the course designers wanted the marathon to begin at Windsor Castle, and finish at the stadium, which was 26 miles. Then, from entering the stadium, they wanted runners to lap around the track and finish in front of the Royal Box. This resulted in another 385 yards, thus we have the marathon distance of 26 miles and 385 yards, or 26.2 miles, or 42.195 kilometers. This distance was accepted as the standard distance by IAAF (International Associations of Athletics Foundation) in 1921, and has been used ever since.
The marathon also quickly became an event outside the Olympics, with the Boston Marathon beginning the next year in 1897. It’s grown from 18 runners to 30,000, and is now incredibly competitive to even get in. Even with an adequate qualifying time, there’s no guarantee, only by beating the time by a large margin will you definitely earn a spot.
|Screen shot of this page|
These are the minimum thresholds for qualifying for the 2016 Boston Marathon; they’re graded for age but are still pretty tough times for the average hobby jogger to meet. The requirements for women 75 to 80 and 80 and up - 5:10 to 5:25 - is actually basically the range I’m aiming for at this year’s Portland Marathon. So I just have to maintain this level of fitness for another 45 years, and then I’ll totally get my BQ.
Speaking of my participation, as a female, - it wasn’t until fairly late in the 20th century that women officially participated in longer athletic events, such as the marathon. The first woman credited with finishing a marathon was Marie-Louise Ledru, who ran in the Tour de Paris Marathon in 1918. A decade later is the “officially timed” first woman, Violet Piercy who completed the Polytechnic Marathon in London in 1926, with a time of 3:40:22.
But the real turning point in marathon history was the running of the Boston Marathon in 1967 by Kathrine Switzer.
While women were not officially allowed to enter at this time, she registered as “K. V. Switzer”, thus remaining under the radar - until the race began. When a race official saw a woman on the course, with an official bib, he literally tried to physically remove her from the course. However Switzer’s boyfriend, also running the marathon, shoved the official aside so Switzer could continue running. She finished in 4:20, nearly an hour behind Bobbi Gibb - another woman running unofficially, who’d also run the year before.
It took another five years for women to be allowed to officially participate in Boston, but female participation has grown since then, with women making up 43% of marathons in 2013, and more than 50% of most current running events.
Today, there are more than 500 marathon races held each year around the world, and there are an estimated 550,000 marathoner finishers in the US each year. The record finishing time currently stands at 2:02:57 overall (by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya in 2014), and 2:15:25 for women (by Paula Radcliffe of the UK in 2003). Even as the records are consistently whittled down, the average finishing time has crept up, from just over three and a half hours in 1980, to over four hours today. Some people bemoan that fact, saying it’s been watered down, but I think that represents that the sport has become more and more accessible. More people taking on the challenge, seeing it as hard but doable.
|Photo purchased from 2013 race photographer|
In less than two weeks, the streets of Portland will be filled with 10,000 marathoners, some qualifying for Boston, some just trying to finish (such as yours truly). Either way, we’ll all be following in the footsteps of the great Pheilipides, but hopefully surviving at the end.
Wikipedia - Marathon (and linked individuals)
Runner's World - A Brief History of the Marathon
Ask History - Why is a Marathon 26.2 Miles?
Running USA 2014 Annual Marathon Report
NYT - Plodders Have a Place, But is it in a Marathon?
Wikipedia - Boston Marathon