May 25, 2018

Marathon: How a concept led to a revolution


The origins of the word ‘Marathon’ is from the Battle of Marathon, dating back to 490 BC. After an intense war between the Greeks and Persians, it was ultimately the home country that emerged victorious. The messenger, Pheidippides, ran 25 kilometres from Attica to Athens with the message "Victory". After conveying the message, he immediately collapsed and died.


However, the actual marathons that we know of today began in modern times. The concept was the brainchild of Michel Breal, a Frenchman and student of Greek mythology. It was Pheidippides' epic feat that inspired him to coin the word ‘marathon’, and the first "official" marathon took place in the first-ever Olympics in Greece in 1896.


Olympic Marathon History


17 runners competed in a 40-kilometre distance between Marathon and Athens. A Greek runner named Spiridon Louis won, leading to much national joy (although it should be noted that the Greek runners had two trial runs over the very same course in the month leading up to the race). The marathon was thus established as one of the defining games of the Olympics. It was only further established in the 1908 London Olympics, which had a somewhat controversial finish 


An Italian runner, Dorando Pietri was near the finish and almost about to win, but he collapsed and was helped by a British official to the finish line. The runner at second place, an American man named Johnny Hayes protested this and was awarded the first-place position in the race. However, Pietri did receive a special medal from the Queen after much public sympathy.


Soon after, Pietri turned professional and in November of the same year, defeated Hayes in a re-match. There was even a brief period which saw indoor marathons (Pietri beat Hayes inside Madison Square Garden, NYC), however, this practice was short-lived.


The popularity of marathons saw their introduction in some major cities. The Boston Marathon was the first of these after it was established in 1897. Britain's Polytechnic Marathon was established twelve years later in 1909. However, the concept of large-scale, mass participation marathons began many decades later, specifically in New York City. In 1970, a new era of marathon running began, as various types of runners from different backgrounds started to participate.


The first NYC marathon had 127 entrants. Eight years later, in 1979, there were 11,500.To put the “marathon boom” in perspective, the 2015 marathon in NYC had 50,000 runners. 1981 saw the first London marathon, having 7,055 participants. According to, the 2016 London marathon had a whopping 250,000 participants! 


NYC Marathon history


Women were banned from marathons, citing limitations on the female body's athletic capabilities. But as history has shown, there's no dampening the spirits of womankind. There were women who tried to run marathons not in the race, but by their own undertaking. 


Stamata Revithi ran the entire marathon course in 1896. In 1926, British athlete Violet Percy ran the Polytechnic Marathon. Perhaps the most iconic and well-known act of a woman running a marathon when it wasn't allowed was in 1967 when 19-year old Kathy Switzer hid her gender to enter the Boston Marathon. She was caught by an official, who tried to prevent her from completing the race, but she would complete it regardless of the literal obstacles in front of her!


(Image courtesy Paul J Connell/The Boston Globe)

It was only in 1984 that the first women's Olympic Marathon was held. Joan Benoit would win the gold medal in the prestigious event in Los Angeles. The New York Marathon in 1970 was the only one to allow female runners from its introduction. Over the years, especially in the United States, the gender gap has been significantly reduced, with North American marathons having upwards of 45 percent female runners participating!


Here's a list of some upcoming annual marathons this year:


Maratona Caixa da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro - Rio de Janerio, Brazil - June 2nd

Inca Trail Marathon to Machu Picchu - Cusco, Peru - June 2nd to 10th; August 4th to 12th

The Big Five Marathon - Limpopo, South Africa - June 23rd 

Marathon du Medoc - Pauillac, France - September 8th 

BMW Berlin Marathon - Berlin, Germany -  September 16th

Niagara Falls International Marathon - Buffalo, NY/Ontario, Canada - October 14th 

TCS Amsterdam Marathon - Amsterdam, Netherlands - October 21st 

TCS New York City Marathon - New York, NY - November 4th

Athens Marathon - Athens, Greece - November 11th

Standard Chartered Bangkok Marathon - November 18th 


The beauty of marathons are that they’re for everyone, irrespective of gender, race, country, creed or any other factors. The entire core concept boils down to fitness, and whether it’s training for a marathon or participating in a marathon, it’s fitness at a high level! It’s a great bucket list addition and one that would feel very satisfactory to tick off! 


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