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Why Is a Marathon 26.2 Miles?

Updated May 16, 2024
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The marathon might have gotten its start in ancient Greece, but it didn't reach its finish line until the 20th century. While the ancient Olympic Games didn't have long races, the Greeks did have long wars, including several between the Greek city-states and Persia.

According to a legendary account, after an important Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., a messenger named Pheidippides was dispatched from Marathon and ran about 25 miles (40.2 km) to Athens to spread the news. In the story (which isn't historically accurate), his heroic but exhausting run cost him his life. Many centuries later, the legend of Pheidippides inspired Olympic organizers to create an event recalling the glory of ancient Greece. Thus, the 1896 Athens marathon was 25 miles long. So how did the modern marathon become 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 km)?

There was no official set distance for the first few Olympic marathons, though they were all roughly 25 miles. The marathon distance grew by 1.2 miles (1.9 km) in 1908 at the London Games, but the reason for this may once again be a mixture of fact and fiction. The popular account is that Britain's Queen Alexandra asked for the race to start from Windsor Castle, allegedly so that the royal children could view it from their nursery, en route to the royal box at the Olympic stadium. Though we don't know why, this new marathon length of 26.2 miles (42.2 km) was made official by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) in 1921 and has remained the same ever since.

Marathon results:

  • Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge holds the record for fastest marathon, running it in a time of 2:01:39 in 2018 in Berlin, Germany.

  • The world record marathon time for a woman is 2:14:04, run by Brigid Kosgei (also from Kenya) in 2019 in Chicago.

  • Fauja Singh was 100 years old when he became the oldest person to complete a marathon, at the Toronto Marathon in 2011. His time was 8:25:16.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon1006695 — On Apr 30, 2022

I am 86 years old and in good health, I ran three 26.2-mile marathons around the KInneret lake Israel, about 1978 ,1979, 1980. Why? I wanted to see if I could do it !

I continued to run long distance 10-12 mi for 35 years, circled the globe 1 1/2 times.

Why? Running became a habit: rain or darkness 3 times a week.

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