Marathons are one of the most physically demanding sporting events and over 36,000 people compete annually in the London Marathon alone. Yet legend has it the marathon began with a single runner and an important piece of news. In the summer of 490 BC, in the east of Greece, the first Persian invasion of Greece was occurring. Persian forces were more than double that of the Athenians, yet miraculously (with a bit of help from superior equipment and better tactics) the Greeks won and drove Persian forces out of Greece for 10 years.
The myth of the marathon begins here. Stating that after the Battle of Marathon and the victory of the Greeks over the Persians, a young messenger named Pheidippides ran from the battlefield to Athens, a distance of 25.4 miles. He ran the entire distance without stopping while exclaiming ‘victory’ and ‘we have won’. On his arrival in Athens he delivered news of the great triumph before collapsing and dying. Another rival myth claims Pheidippides ran between Athens and Sparta to ask for help in the war, a distance of 150 miles each way. Whichever legend you choose to believe, the struggle of running a great distance is crucial to the story, and hence the creation of one of the world’s most popular running event.
The marathon was a key event of the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, as it aimed to show the link between Ancient Greece and modern sporting achievements. Originally male only, the first victor in 1896 has an equally impressive story as Pheidippides. Spiridon “Spyros” Louis, a Greek water carrier, was the champion out of the seventeen contestants. After a Frenchman took the early lead, Spyros stopped at a local tavern to have a glass of wine. However the Frenchman retired from the race due to exhaustion, and Spyros carried on the with the marathon to eventually win. Women entered Olympic marathon competitions for the first time in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and it was won by American Joan Benoit.
Beyond the Olympics, marathons have been popular with the public for years. After 1908 Olympics ‘marathon mania’ spread across the USA, and the origins of the New York Marathon were founded, with five amateur races being held around the city. Fast forward to the present day, and over 500 races are held annually across the globe. Prize funds for the professionals are in the thousands and the race has expanded beyond men and women to wheelchair races as well. Marathons are now certainly one of the world’s most popular sports and are still equally as impressive as when Pheidippides ran the first one.