knows the marathon is 26 miles, 385 yards long. But
why the random distance?
Surely everyone knows by now
that there’s a royal wedding—you’ve
heard of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle?—taking
place tomorrow at England’s Windsor Castle, about
22 miles west of downtown London.
Few realize, however, that the
very same Windsor Castle is responsible for the marathon’s
now-classic distance. It was the starting point for
the 1908 London Olympic Marathon.
Prior to the London Olympics,
marathon races, beginning with the first marathon at
the inaugural modern Olympics of 1896, covered approximately
40 kilometers (25 miles). This was the distance from
the Plains of Marathon to the Panathinaiko Stadium in
downtown Greece that Pheidippides covered in 490 B.C.
while carrying word that Athens had defeated the invading
Persians. According to legend—and Pheidippides
himself was likely a mythical artifact—he collapsed
and died after delivering the good news.
Subsequent Olympic cities—Paris,
1900; St. Louis, 1904—followed suit in selecting
the length of their marathon courses, though no one
bothered to micro-measure them. Similarly, early versions
of the Boston Marathon, run continuously since 1897,
started in Ashland, not Hopkinton. The course measured
about 24.5 miles.
According to some stories,
the 1908 Olympic course was extended to Windsor Castle—26
miles, 385 yards from the Royal Box in White City Stadium—because
the Royal Family wanted several young princes and princesses
to see the valiant marathon runners. It seems more likely
that London Olympic organizers had always wanted a Windsor
Castle start, and eventually succeeded.
While the 1908 London Olympic
Marathon established the now-traditional race distance,
this distance wasn’t ratified and made official
until 1921. Beginning with the 1924 Paris Olympics,
all Olympic marathons and other official marathons have
covered 26 miles, 385 yards (42 kilometers, 195 meters).
The British Royal Family
also played a role in last month’s London Marathon
on April 22. The marathon was started by 92-year-old
Queen Elizabeth. She stood on the lawn in front of Windsor
Castle’s Round Tower, and at 10 a.m. depressed
a button that sounded horns at the London Marathon start
line in Greenwich Park.