Ancient and Still Vibrant: the Marathon Turns 2500 Years Old

By Jörg Wenig

Runners in sync with the statue on the race course from Marathon to Athens. ©
Runners in sync with the statue on the race course from Marathon to Athens. ©

The modern marathon has always been a spectacular event. Who can forget the 100th edition of the Boston Marathon in 1996 when a record 36,000 people turned out to run the famous route from Hopkinton to Copley Square? Or September 1990, less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the first Berlin Marathon through both East and West Germany was staged? Equally moving was the race through New York City in November 2001 just two months after the terror attacks when runners, spectators, and the entire city united in peace.

The greatest anniversary in the history of the 26.2-mile road race will be celebrated in Greece next year when the marathon turns 2,500! To commemorate this special occasion, the 28th edition of the Athens Classic Marathon will take place on the historic course from Marathon to Athens on October 31, 2010. At the Association of International and Distance Races (AIMS) symposium early in November, the chairman, Horst Milde, compared the upcoming race to Boston’s 100-year anniversary or Berlin’s Reunification Marathon. “It is the anniversary of a sporting concept, which has captured people’s imagination around the world. The Marathon has become a yardstick of health, fitness and success for many,” said Milde. The Athens race is expected to sell out fast due to this year’s huge interest.

The Origin of the Marathon

An ancient Greek warrior lights the marathon flame at the Marathon memorial. ©
An ancient Greek warrior lights the marathon flame at the Marathon memorial. ©

The Marathon race—without a doubt one of the thrilling contests in the Olympics—dates back to the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC where an outnumbered Greek army defeated the invading Persians. Many historians cite this battle as one of the most decisive in the history of the world.

The story goes that at the conclusion of the battle, a messenger named Pheidippides was dispatched to bring news of the victory to Athens some 40 kilometers away: Pheidippides ran the entire distance in full body armor without stopping and announced in Athens: “Nenikekamen” (“Rejoice, we have conquered”). He then dropped dead. Did this really happen? Most scholars doubt it. However, Yannis Emiris writes in his 2004 book Marathon Run, which was published in conjunction with the Olympic Games in Athens, that some historians believe this actually happened. However, the ancient historian Herodotus, who is the prime source for the description of the Battle of Marathon, doesn’t mention this famous event.

Running messengers like Pheidippides were primarily used in the ancient world to deliver letters and other news. Before his famous marathon, Pheidippides is rumored to have run at least 250K before the Battle of Marathon to ask the Spartans to come to their aid. He is said to have reached Sparta the day after he left Athens!

The Marathon’s Rebirth in Athens

As they set about their preparations for the first modern Olympic Games to be held in Athens in 1896, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, Pierre de Coubertin, was looking for a competition that had close links with the ancient history of Greece. One of de Coubertin’s colleagues, Michel Breal, suggested at a conference in Paris two years before the 1896 games, that a long distance race should be organized to commemorate Pheidippides’ famous run after the Battle of Marathon.

This was the moment the modern marathon was born.

The committee gave the race a name and a distance—calling it a marathon after the town of Marathon where the race was to begin. It would finish in the Olympic arena in Athens, the Panathinaikon Stadium. The first winner of the modern marathon was a Greek shepherd named Spiridon Louis who came from Maroussi not far from Athens. He reached the finish in 2:58:50 hours and went on to become a hero in his native land.

At that time, the distance of the marathon was approximately 40 kilometers and the length was not fixed in subsequent Olympics. Today’s exact 42.195K was first introduced at the 1908 Games in London where the race went from Windsor castle to the Olympic stadium. The distance came about due to the need for the race to end in front of the royal box. Then in 1914 the International Olympic Committee decided that the marathon should be exactly 42 kilometers. There was further debate about this after the course in Amsterdam in 1920 was extended to 42.75K. Ultimately, the committee that ratified world records for the International Athletics Federation (IAAF) decided in 1921 that the distance should henceforth be the same as that in London in 1908: exactly 42.195K.

While the Olympics have always hosted the marathon, the adoption of the event in large cities took time to develop. At first, only a few cities like Boston, Fukuoka (Japan), or Chiswick (London) held an annual marathon. But in the 1980s, the number of large-scale marathon events began to boom. Top-class marathons sprang up around the world with massive numbers of participants. The New York City Marathon was and remains the largest of these races.

The Athens Classic Marathon of Today

The finish at the Panathinaikon Stadium in Athens. ©
The finish at the Panathinaikon Stadium in Athens. ©

In Greece, the national athletics federation SEGAS was the first body to run the Athens Marathon for elite runners. This event took place every two years on the original course. As elite runners favored easier courses with bigger prize purses elsewhere in the 1970s, this marathon lapsed. In 1983, SEGAS founded the Athens Classic Marathon which has taken place every year since on the original course.

The point-to-point course from Marathon to Athens is extremely challenging. Approximately the first 12K are flat including a stretch that takes the runners around the memorial to the Battle of Marathon. It then starts to climb gradually until the 20K mark. The highest point between Marathon and Athens is about 10K from the finish. The course then drops more than 100 meters and finishes in the Panathinaikon Stadium, an ancient arena that was originally built in 330 BC. The stadium was rebuilt for the 1896 Olympic Games.

This elongated marble arena, which has an oval track measuring 333.33 meters, not the usual 400 of modern stadia, hosted the finish for the marathon at the 1997 World Championships and the 2004 Olympic Games. The course record was set in 2004 when Stefano Baldini of Italy ran 2:10:55 despite sweltering heat. In those same games, Mizuki Noguchi of Japan won the women’s title in 2:26:20. The event records for the Athens Classic Marathon are held by the Kenyan Paul Lekuraa (2:12:42/2008) and the Russian Svetlana Ponomarenko (2:33:19/207).

Landmark Anniversary in 2010

Start of the Athens Classic Marathon 2009 on November 8. ©
Start of the Athens Classic Marathon 2009 on November 8. ©

The number of participants in the Athens Classic Marathon has grown steadily in recent years. Only four years ago, 4,000 runners took part, but in 2009 that number grew to over 11,000 from at least 50 countries although this figure includes those taking part in shorter distance races held in conjunction with the marathon. The most recent edition of the marathon hosted nearly six thousand runners with more than half from abroad. Next year’s Athens Classic Marathon should be greatly anticipated in light of the 2,500-year anniversary. If logistical problems can be solved, considerably more runners could apply for an entry. Horst Milde of AIMS estimates between 20,000 and 30,000 runners would like to participate in the marathon.

A series of special events has been planned in conjunction with the October 31st marathon. They include an opening ceremony at the Marathon memorial where the marathon flame will be lit and an exhibition will be held in Athens, which will cover various stories and folklore about the marathon as well as the race’s proud history. In addition, the AIMS congress will be held in Marathon the day before the 2010 race.

“In 2010 it will be 2,500 years since the name of Marathon became a synonym for effort and courage as well as a symbol for culture and democracy. The town of Marathon—which I have the honor to represent—welcomes this wonderful anniversary which will illustrate the values given birth here which have found their way around the world,” said Spyridon Zagaris, the mayor of Marathon.

A year before the anniversary, Paco Borao, Vice-President of AIMS, spoke at the Marathon memorial. In his remarks he pointed out that “there could be no better place than the memorial to the Battle of Marathon to express our commitment to the sport of running, which is based upon fair play, friendship and peace. As a crowning glory of the Olympic Games the marathon will continue to present its image of honesty, solidarity and peace. AIMS has pledged itself to continue in partnership with the IAAF to promote the sport of running around the world, encouraging the exchange of knowledge and experience among its member events to help our sport develop still further. Millions of people pursue the simplest, healthiest and cheapest sport there is: running.”

Borao’s words are a fitting tribute to the world’s oldest race. Even though it’s two and a half millennia since Pheidippides’ famous run, the race still continues to inspire and excite millions of runners around the globe.