By Bob Phillips
6th March 2017
We all know that the marathon is 26 miles 385 yards. But why? Whose idea was it?
by Bob Phillips
Pheidippides didn’t do it. Or if he did, the Ancient Greek press corps were a bit slow on the uptake, and there could only have been a blithe disregard for any sort of reasonable topicality among the scribes of the day. Treating deadlines with disdain, one of the most widely read columnists of 2,400 years or so ago, Herodotus, only picked up on the story some three or four decades later. Plutarch – even more renowned among his avid readership – waited half-a-millenium before putting a pen to paper, or more precisely a split reed to papyrus/ Maybe he was short of anything newsworthy that week and so revived a vaguely remembered myth instead. Even in the 1st Century A.D. when Plutarch was scribbling away (or should that be “scratching” away?), publicity for Greek war messengers was still a sensitive subject because they had often been suspected of being deserters.
To be fair to Herodotus, he has been hailed in retrospect as “the father of modern history”; the first essayist to subject events of the past to close investigation – a sort of John Pilger of his time, if you like – and it is said that he researched his article diligently, speaking to eye-witnesses of the confrontation between the Athenian army and the invading Persians. As Herodotus had been born in what was then Persia, it’s logical that he did his best to check the facts. So there’s sufficient glimmer of truth in the matter that we need not concern ourselves too much as to whether its true or not.
Of course, everyone interested in athletics is well aware that the marathon was first devised for the revived Olympic Games of 1896. They also know that a messenger named Pheidippides (or maybe Philippides – even the most painstaking of reporters couldn’t agree on his name) is supposed to have brought news of success in battle to Athens, but maybe they realise that it was a tale which was in all probability no more than a figment of some Grecian imagination. Yet that did not seem to bother a formidably literate Frenchman of the late 19th Century named Michel Bréal, who was an expert in Greek history, when he thought up the idea, of an Olympic marathon, and nor did it cause his friend and associate, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, to hesitate in accepting the proposal as part of his grand Games plan..
Bréal was actually born in Bavaria in 1832, but his parents were of French/Jewish descent, and in 1837 he and his mother moved to the French region of Alsace after his father’s death. He attended school there and in Metz and Paris and was thus brought up speaking both German and French. He qualified as a teacher and became head of the French higher educational system in 1879. A letter from Bréal to Baron de Coubertin exists in the International Olympic Committee archives and records the precise manner in which the marathon proposal was made to the Baron. There is no evidence that Monsieur Bréal ever actually attempted to jog to the nearest post-box to his Paris residence, let alone take it upon himself to see if it was humanly possible to run as far as the 40-odd kilometres his “marathon” would entail on the primitive roads leading to the Greek capital. .
Baron de Coubertin was about to depart for Greece in September 1892, and in his letter Bréal wrote as follows, a shade peremptorily perhaps (he must have known the Baron well): “Since you are going to Athens, check if it is possible to organise a race from Marathon to Pnyx. This would have ancient character. If we knew the time the Greek warrior needed for this stretch, we could make a record of it”. Bréal later reinforced his suggestion by donating a 25-centimetre high silver trophy for the marathon winner.
That first marathon from the village of Marathon (or Amaroussi) to Athens worked out at a convenient 40 kilometres in distance – or at least that is how history has invariably recorded it. Yet even the authors of the definitive account, “The Olympic Marathon”, published in the year 2000, are not entirely certain. David E. Martin and Roger Gynn admit no more than that "estimates of the total race distance are placed consistently at 40 kilometres, and we presume the measurement was done by local surveyors or perhaps even civil engineers”. Actually, it does not matter too much what the precise distance of the course was; the salient point is that 40 kilometres was thought by all and sundry concerned with the promotion of these inaugural Games as being the appropriate marathon distance.
The feasibility of competition at 40km, or thereabouts, would already have been in those people’s minds, even if only vaguely so; Track races for amateurs at 40km or 25 miles (40.233km) had been held maybe as early as the 1870s, and respectable performances were soon being achieved. In 1881 a 25-mile race was organised by London Athletic Club in which George Dunning, of Essex Beagles, ran a time of 2:33:34. Monsieur Bréal and Baron de Coubertin would have known of the Paris-to-Versailles road race over a course of 38.6km, which had been won in 1885 in 2:36:30 by Louis Saussus, known familiarly as “L’Homme Electrique”.
But these are isolated examples, and the advocates of an Olympic marathon otherwise had little or no precedent to go on because amateur road-racing in any numbers at this sort of distance was still virtually unknown in 1896. One very practical, reason for this was that the rutted or dust-laden roads commonly in use were simply not suitable – and would not be on any wide scale until after “tarmac” was patented in 1901. The first such road surface was laid, incidentally, by Edgar Hooley, the country surveyor of Nottinghamshire.
In passing, it is also worth pondering as to why that first Olympic event did not come to be known as “the Athens race” or “the Athenian“, either of which titles had their obvious merits. The term “Marathon race”, coined by Monsieur Bréal, seems to have caught on from the very start, and the report in “The Times”, in its edition of 11 April 1896, uses those same words.
There were not all that many valiant souls who took up the Athens challenge, though even that is a matter of dispute – 13 starters according to the German authority, Ekkehard zur Megede (“The Modern Olympic Century 1896-1996”,, published in 1999); 17 according to Messrs Martin and Gynn. Four of these runners were from outside Greece, including the London-born champion for Australia at 800 and 1500 metres, Edwin (“Teddy”) Flack, but the only other authenticated 40-kilometre road races had taken place earlier in the year as Olympic qualifiers – two of them in Greece and the other in Hungary.
The next Olympic marathon at the Paris Games of 1900, was much the same in length as four years before – actually 40.26km – and in St Louis in 1904 it was 24 miles 1500 yards (39.996 km). Yet the concept of these acceptably close approximations to a neatly-rounded figure was by no means set in tablets of stone by race organisers. The course for the 10th anniversary Games in Athens in 1906 has been variously reported as being 41.86kme or 42km, and Ekkehard zur Megede, David Martin and Roger Gynn settle for the former. Again the marginal difference does not really matter; the significance being that, despite its attractions for the tidy-minded, 40km is not yet standardized. What is of even greater import is that in the fullness of time it never would be.
The Olympic marathon of 1908 in London is, in all probability, the most discussed single event in athletics history, challenged only by Bannister’s first sub-four-minute mile, and the manner of Dorando Pietri’s disqualification in the last few yards has been mulled over time and again – most recently by the late lamented Norman Harris in his splendidly imaginative account, “At Last He Comes”’, published in 2013. This race, as we all know, lasted 26 miles 385 yards, which converts to 42.195km, and this was to become the universally accepted marathon distance, though by no means immediately. .
Yet we cannot even be sure that those who completed the London marathon course on the track at the Shepherd’s Bush Stadium actually covered 26 miles plus 385 yards! An intensely detailed investigation was carried out by a British historian, Hugh Farey, who is a Herefordshire school-teacher by profession, and was published in the November 2007 issue of the UK journal, “Track Stats” (Volume 45, No.4). In this he pointed out that even the Official Report of the Games gave several different versions of the distance – at least one of which may have been due simply to poor arithmetic on the part of the Report’s editor – but it does seem as if the intention of the organisers was that the distance should, indeed, be 26 miles 385 yards.
Both in Britain and the USA this same distance was contested on a number of occasions during 1909, and the World’s fastest time was reduced in four instalments, ultimately to 2:42:31 by Harry Barrett, starting in Windsor Park, as had the Olympic marathon, but finishing at a different London venue, the Stamford Bridge Stadium. This was the first of a durable series of annual races promoted by the Polytechnic Harriers club which would last until ever-increasing traffic problems brought it to an end in 1996, having produced seven more World records after Barrett’s auspicious debut.
The organisers of the Stockholm Olympics of 1912 set their marathon distance at 40.2km – in other words, almost exactly 25 miles – and this choice was to prevail until World War I and in the years immediately following, though the course for the 1920 Games in Antwerp was 42.75km, and there is no apparent explanation for this, other than that such decisions were entirely at the discretion of Games organisers.. In 1921 the 40km or 40.2km distances were still preferred, as there were only seven athletes in the World who broke three hours for 42.195km, whereas there were 16 at 2 hours 52 minutes or better for 40 or 40.2km. The 1922 balance of figures was much the same: 14 sub-three hours at 42.195km and 23 sub-2:52 at 40 or 40.2km. By 1923 the situation had changed radically, and: there were 23 men under three hours for 42.195km and 20 under 2:53 for 40 or 40.2km.
The explanation is simple. At its congress in 1921 the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) had agreed that 42.195km should be the standard marathon distance and had released a list of proposed Olympic events for 1924 which included the marathon, specifying the length of the course as being that. As the 1924 Olympics drew near, the marathon distance to be run there clearly became more attractive. But the question must be asked – “Why was such a decision taken three years before?” The predominant distance had then still been 40.2km, used in particular for numerous races in Scandinavia, and the long-serving president of the IAAF was himself Swedish, J. Sigfrid Edstrom, holding office from 1912 to 1946
My conclusion is that the man who exercised the greatest influence among the IAAF delegates from 23 countries was the former honorary secretary of England’s Amateur Athletic Association, Percy Fisher, who had also been a member of the committee that had agreed the distance for the 1908 Olympic marathon and was now a British representative at the IAAF Fisher was a highly respected administrator of whom it was written on the 50th anniversary of the AAA in 1930 that “he not only possessed an intimate knowledge of the sport, as a competitor in recent years, but he had the priceless gift of ‘getting on well’ with every type of club, every type of competitor”.
Sadly, Fisher lived only a few more months to enjoy the praise. He travelled to Canada for the inaugural British Empire Games that same year of 1930, was taken ill during the long transatlantic voyage, and died in Montreal General Hospital of the brain disease, encephalitis. He had been an auctioneer by profession, living in the western suburbs of London, and a memorial service was held close to his former home only five days after his death. Yet of the 68 members of the various AAA committees only one attended. Could it be that a further observation about Fisher’s tenure as AAA secretary had been that it was one “his colleagues of that period are not likely to forget” had some hidden agenda to it? One of those committee-members had been Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the legendary detective, Sherlock Holmes, and he might have been tempted to make a few inquiries, but for the fact that his life, too, had come to an end earlier in the year.
We cannot be sure of the extent or impact of Fisher’s contribution to the IAAF discussions because the minutes for that congress have not survived, but it seems a reasonable assumption to make that his loquacity swayed the decision. It may also be that Fisher had the enthusiastic support of one of the earliest supporters of the Olympic movement, Count Alexander Mercati, who had been elected to the IOC in 1897 and who regarded the distance used in Athens for the 10th anniversary race in 1906, which he believed to be 42km, as being the rightful one.
The Official Report of the 1924 Games gives no reason for the choice of distance, and that is maybe because the Editor did not feel the need to do so, now that the duration of the event had been internationally agreed. By this juncture the annual Polytechnic Harriers marathon rivalled Boston in quality, though direct comparisons were difficult to make. The Boston organisers resolutely stuck to their own interpretation of what the “marathon” distance was, shifted their starting-line back three times over the years, and did not stretch it to the full 26 miles 385 yards until 1929 – not in 1924, as is claimed in internet sources, when the distance was changed to 24.7 miles (39.75 kilometres). As a matter of interest, the course record by 1924 for the “Poly” was 2:36:06.6 by Alexis Ahlgren, of Sweden, set in 1913, while the 1924 Boston race was won in 2:29:40.2 by Clarence DeMar, of the USA – worth around 2:37 for the now standard distance.
Boston apart, 26 miles 385 yards the marathon had become, and so it has remained ever since. Percy Fisher’s counsel to the IAAF celebrates its centenary in four years’ time and maybe deserves some celebration.
Acknowledgments: thanks to Roger Gynn for information regarding the IAAF. Details of Michel Bréal’s life and Olympic involvement were contained in an article in the IOC’s “Journal of Olympic History”, by Karl Lennartz, in 1998. Tom Derderian’s history of the Boston Marathon, published by Human Kinetics, is frustratingly coy about the varying distances of the race, but it does contain a wealth of entertaining and informative stories. In 1929, for instance, when the distance was the full 26:385, one of the leaders until beyond 20 miles was appropriately named Max Lamp. Unfortunately, his light flickered out soon afterwards and he eventually came in 13th.