Why is the marathon 42,195 meters long?

T here are two things that even those who have never run a marathon and never will know precisely: the distance between Athens and, indeed, Marathon is 42 kilometers. It’s the route that Pheidippides covered on his way to warn the Athenians that the Persians had been defeated. Perhaps the story did not turn out exactly that way, and most likely it was not even Pheidippides who carried the message but another emerodrome (i.e., a message bearer), who actually died from the effort.

The story of the marathon is heroic and tragic at the same time, and perhaps that is why we are so passionate about it. It is heroic because it speaks of the courage and self-sacrifice of an emerodist who was so motivated to perform his task that he died from it, and tragic because his victory also coincided with his end.

The Olympic Marathon

The Olympic Games have a tradition dating back thousands of years: they originated in Ancient Greece and included competitions in speed and distance, among others. The marathon was not among them, and it was only with the birth of the modern Olympic Games in 1896 that organizer Michel Bréal had the idea of creating a “game” celebrating Pheidippides’ effort, thus drawing a link to Greece and the origins of what would later become the world’s most coveted and prestigious sporting event.

The original marathon distance of those Olympic Games-the first modern ones-held in Athens, however, was 40 km, and that was the exact distance between the two cities measured between the Marathon Bridge and the Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens. For the record, Spyridōn Louīs won it on April 10, 1896 in 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds.

It was not until 1908, however, that the marathon distance took on the connotations we now know: 42,195 meters. The race was held in London: the course started from Windsor Castle and ended at the Olympic Stadium. This was a total of 26 miles, or 41,843 meters, but, in order to accommodate the finish line under the royal stage, the organizers added 385 yards (or about 352 more meters). Since then, the official marathon distance has remained 42,195 meters.

Two oddities within the oddity

Since this is one of the most famous races in the world, you can easily imagine that it has collected hundreds of records over the years, both positive and negative. Today, however, I want to tell you about two extreme records: that of slowness and that of speed.

Let’s start with the latter. The Olympic marathon is not among the fastest races, depending a lot on where it takes place. The speed of those 42,195 meters is in fact related to where the course is run and by too many environmental factors. The men’s marathon world record is therefore not the fastest time recorded in a marathon, but it is still a very remarkable 2h 06′ 32″ attributed to Kenyan Samuel Wanjiru who set it in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics.

That of slowness belongs instead to Japan’s Shizo Kanakuri who ran it in 1912 in Stockholm. His official time was. 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 23 seconds. You read that right: 54 years, etc. How was this possible? What happened was that despite being among the favorites, at the 30th kilometer and despite being in the leading group, Kanakuri stopped at a house found along the route to rest. He was so tried by the heat that he fell asleep and when he awoke, now too late, in shame he did not make it to the finish line, so much so that his time could not be recorded. It was only in 1962 that, on the 50th anniversary of those Swedish Olympic Games, a journalist found him. Five years later he was given the chance to complete his race starting from that infamous 30th kilometer and finishing it in… 54 years, eight months and counting, exactly.

(Main image credits: Tom Wang on DepositPhotos.com)


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