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The Curious History Of The First Marathon Races

The current marathon distance is 42,195 metres. Most people think that it has always been like that but the story is more complicated….

The link with the ancient Olympic Games

The ancient Olympic Games had no footraces longer than a stadium-based race of about three miles. So, when Pierre de Coubertin and his team decided to link the new Olympics to the Ancient ones, they were more inspired by the long endurance races that were very popular at the end of XIX century. Instead, the connection was made with the Ancient Greek military. In 490 BC, the Athenian army defeated the Persians in a battle which took place near a small town: Marathon. The legend tells that a messenger ran from the battlefield to Athens with the good news, but he died of exhaustion. In reality, we don’t know if this really happened: the story seems to be a combined version of two classical writings from Plutarch (On The Glory Of Athens, written about 500 years after the Marathon battle) and from Herodotus (some 40 years after the Marathon battle). These stories were well known in XIX century Europe and America…. The marathon, as a race, was thus chartered in wishful legend, more than in history.

The marathon at the Athens Olympic Games in 1896

At the Athens Olympic Games in 1896, a selection race was staged on March 10th 1896 (of the Julian calendar) that was won by Charilaos Vasilakos in 3 hours and 18 minutes. For the real thing, seventeen men enlisted and attempted a 40-km race from Marathon to the Panathinaikon Stadium in Athens: ten of them finished. The first marathon race was won by Spiridion Louis of Greece, stating the first record at 2:58:50 (he came only fifth at the selection race). The event quickly became famous and, before the next Olympics in 1900, long-distance races, each one called marathon, were held in Paris, New York, Boston, Copenhagen, etc.

The marathon at the Paris Olympic games in 1900

At the poorly organised Paris games in 1900, it is not clear whether the marathon was formally an Olympic event or not: there is no mention of it in either the official programme published before the games or in the official report published afterwards.

Unofficially, a marathon was raced as a track and field athletics event, on July 19th 1900. Thirteen athletes from five nations competed in a race of 40.26 kilometres. The winner was Michel Théato with a time of 2:59:45 (which cannot be compared to his predecessor because the distance was different), amid allegations of runners taking short-cuts and others being obstructed. He was originally assumed to be French, before it was discovered much later that he actually was from Luxembourg. The International Olympic Committee still credits this medal for France, however….

The strange marathon at the 1904 Olympic games

The following games in 1904 in St Louis, USA, are famous for being the stage of very strange events regarding the marathon. Thirty-two athletes representing four nations competed in the 39,996 meters race, but only fourteen managed to finish.

The first to appear at the finish line was American runner Fred Lorz. But he had actually dropped out of the race after nine miles and took a ride in car, back to the stadium. When the car broke down after ten miles, Lorz re-entered the race and jogged across the finish line. Initially hailed as the winner, he was about to receive the gold medal when his misbehaviour was revealed. He immediately admitted it. He was then banned from competition for life; this was actually reconsidered and the ban was lifted a year later.

British-born Thomas Hicks of the USA ended up the winner, with a time of 3:28:53, although he was aided in a way that would not have been permitted later. For the last ten miles of the race, Hicks received several doses of strychnine sulfate (a common rat poison, which stimulates the nervous system in small doses) mixed with brandy. He was supported by his trainers when he crossed the finish, but was still considered the winner.

A near-fatality during the event was William Garcia of San Francisco: he was found lying in the road with severe internal injuries caused by breathing the dust kicked up by the race officials’ cars.

Also, Cuban postman Andarín Carvajal joined the marathon at the last minute. After losing all his money in New Orleans, he hitchhiked to St Louis and had to run in street clothes (though cut around the legs to make them look like shorts). During the race, he stopped to chat with spectators and, not having eaten in forty hours, snatched some peaches from a spectator’s car. Later in the race, he saw an apple tree and stopped to eat some apples which turned out to be rotten and caused stomach cramps. After stopping to nap and recover, Carvajal rallied to finish fourth, but with no recorded time.

The marathon also included the first two black Africans to compete in the Olympics: Len Tau (real name: Len Taunyane) and Yamasani (real name: Jan Mashiani). Len Tau finished ninth and Yamasani came in twelfth. Many observers were disappointed because they were sure that Len Tau could have done better if he had not been chased nearly a mile off-course by aggressive dogs….

The marathon at the 1908 Olympic Games in London

The marathon took place on July 24th 1908 at 2:33pm, with 56 competitors. The weather was particularly hot by British summer standards. This race – and this edition of the whole Olympic Games – will become famous for what happened at the end. The first to enter the stadium was Dorando Pietri of Italy. The effects of extreme fatigue and dehydration started two kilometres before and, when he entered the stadium, he took the wrong path. When umpires redirected him, he fell down for the first time. Two of the officials, Jack Andrew (the clerk of the course) and Dr Michael Bulger (of the Irish Amateur Athletic Association and the chief medical officer that day) helped him getting up, in front of 75,000 spectators. He fell four more times and, each time, the umpires helped him up. In the end, though totally exhausted, he managed to finish the race in first place. Of his total time of 2:54:46, 10 minutes were needed for that last 350 metres….

D. Pietri Arrival - London marathon - 1908
D. Pietri Arrival – London Marathon – 1908
(from Wikimedia)

However, American Johnny Hayes of the Irish American Athletic Club protested against the help Pietri received, leading to his disqualification and removal from the final standings of the race. Since Pietri had not been responsible for his disqualification, Queen Alexandra awarded him a gilded silver cup the next day. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes stories author, had been commissioned by the Daily Mail to write a special report about the race. He was very impressed by the effort of the Italian at the stadium:

The Italian’s great performance can never be effaced from our record of sport, be the decision of the judges what it may.

Dorando Pietri became an international celebrity. He won his very last race in Göteborg (Sweden) in October 1911. He was 26 at the time. In three years as a professional runner, he earned 200,000 lire in prize money alone: an enormous sum for the time.

The 1908 Olympics also prompted establishment of standard rules for sports and selection of judges from different countries rather than just the host. Part of the problem was the different definition of interference under British and US rules. On top of the marathon events, a curious episode happened in the 400 meter run: the US winner was accused of interfering with the British runner. The race was re-run, but the Americans refused to participate. The British runner, Wyndham Halswelle, won by running around the track on his own, because three of the four original runners had been American: the only walkover in Olympic history!

Standardisation and official records

The International Olympic Committee agreed in 1907 that the distance for the 1908 London Olympic marathon would be about 25 miles or 40 kilometres. But the organisers decided on a course of 26 miles, to allow the start to be at Windsor Castle, going through the royal entrance to the White City Stadium, followed by a lap (586 yards 2 feet) of the track, finishing in front of the Royal Box. The course was even later altered to use a different entrance to the stadium, followed by a partial lap of 385 yards to the same finish. The modern 42.195 km standard distance for the marathon was set by the at-the-time International Amateur Athletic Federation in May 1921 from the length used at the 1908 Olympics.

According to IAAF Competition Rules, on top of the stated marathon course, officials add a short prevention factor of up to one metre per kilometre (i.e. 0.1%, 42 m tolerance in excess) to their measurements to reduce the risk of going below the minimum distance. The IAAF will only recognise world records that are established at events that are run under IAAF rules.

World records were not officially recognised by the IAAF until January 1st 2004; previously, the best times for the marathon were referred to as the world best.


For a long time after the Olympic marathons started, there were no long-distance races for women. Although a few women had run the marathon distance, they were not included in any official results. French athlete Marie-Louise Ledru has been credited as the first woman to race a marathon. On September 29th 1918, she finished in 38th place in the Tour de Paris Marathon with a time of 5:40:00. Violet Piercy has been credited as the first woman to be officially timed in a marathon. She set the first women’s world best in the marathon on October 3rd 1926 with a time of 3:40:22. According to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), her mark stood 37 years….

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