WHY is the marathon exactly 42.195 kilometers long? Why is it even called a marathon?

For the distance, you can blame a bloke named Philippides also known as Pheidippides and the “race of the century.” For the name, well, it’s history’s fault.

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Legend has it that the Greeks had just won the war against the Persians in Marathon in 490 BC and Philippides was dispatched from the battlefield to Athens to announce the victory.

Philippides ran the whole route—some 42 kilometers—starting a running boom that has continued 2,500 years after his first run.

However, the online encyclopedia wikipedia added that there is some debate as to the historical accuracy of Philippides as Herodotus, the main source of the Greco-

Persian Wars said Philippides was the messenger who ran from Athens to Sparta to ask for help, then ran back.

He covered a distance of 240 kilometers each way, or a total of 480 kilometers.

(Marathoners can thank their lucky stars, that it’s the shorter version that got commemorated.)

When the Olympics was revived, the organizers wanted a “great popularizing event” that would recall the glory of ancient Greece.

Michel Breal, a French philologist who is considered as the founder of modern semantics, suggested holding a marathon.

There was no definite distance for a marathon in the first few editions of the olympiad; the only requirement was that the participants must run the same route.

Why the route became 42.195 kilometers, is quite a story in itself and it involved the first great rivalry in the sport.

When London was chosen to host the 1908 Olympiad, organizers published the route of the marathon, which was only 40 kilometers.


There were protests because the route was to cross tram-lines and cobblestone roads, so it was changed, and lengthened to 42 kilometers and 535 meters, as it included one final lap at the stadium for the finish.

The final distance of 42.195 was achieved when they changed the direction in the final go around at the stadium to allow the audience, particularly the Queen, to better view the runners in their final rounds.

And changing the view had a profound influence in capping the distance of the marathon.

In the 1908 Olympiad, Dorando Pietri staggered in the final 352 meters, and fell several times.

He eventually crossed the finish line at 2:54.46 with the help of some officials.

Because he was aided, he was disqualified and Johnny Hayes was awarded the gold medal for what was then called the “race of the century.”

Hayes finished the run in 2:55:18.4.

However, the story doesn’t end there. England’s Queen was reportedly so moved by Pietri’s determination in the final yards, that she awarded him the gold medal.

Pietri was so exhausted that it took him 10 minutes to cross the final 350 meters.

With such a dramatic finish and a controversial conclusion, the clamor for a rematch between Pietri and Hayes grew.

And naturally, it had to be exactly over 42.195 kilometers.

Pietri won both.

For the 1912 and the 1920 Olympiad, the marathon distance went to 40.2 and 42.75.

The IAAF, the world’s governing body for the sport, only started fixing the distance at 42.195 in 1921.

According to wikipedia, the reason for fixing it at the 1908 distance was never explained “but emotional attachment to the distance of the ‘race of the century’ was clearly strong.”