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Why are marathons 26.2 miles (26 miles 385 yards) long?

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Running in the streets
Female runner

Marathons weren’t always 26.2 miles (26 miles 385 yards) or 42.195km. So why are they this distance? It took an infamous race in London 1908 to finally standardise the distance, although the marathon distance was not universally recognised until 1924.

The first marathon was set up by Pierre de Coubertain for the inaugural Athens 1896 Olympic Games in as a nod to the Games of ancient Greece. The inspiration was the legend of Pheidippides running back from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of victory in the Battle of Marathon, only to die after delivering his message. The distance of this first Olympic Marathon in 1896 was 24.8 miles.

The Boston Marathon started the following year, as a legacy event of the first Olympic Marathon. This route was 24.5 miles long. Boston did not change to the 26.2 mile distance until 1924.

The route of the following Olympic Games in Paris 1900 was 40.26 km. The next Olympics in St Louis hosted a marathon of 40km (24.85 miles).

Then came the London 1908 Olympic Games. A route was decided to run between Windsor Castle and the White City Stadium in Shepherd’s Bush. The route went through Eton and Harrow, as well as Slough, Uxbridge, Ruislip, Pinner, Wembley and Harlesden.

The 1908 Olympic Marathon started in the grounds of Windsor Castle, so to be private and manageable. The finish was on the finish line of the track inside White City Stadium. However, so to give spectators the best view of the runners at the finish, it was decided that the route would enter the stadium, then go the ‘wrong’ way around the track (clockwise), finishing on the finish line, which incidentally was also opposite the Royal Box. The distance of this London 1908 route was 26.2 miles (42.195km). A distance that has endured to this day.

So, why are marathons 26.2 miles (26 miles 385 yards) long? Well, it's all down to a single race and Original Marathon will recreate this historic route and event.

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