April 24, 2012

The Reason (If Not Rhyme) of 26.2

If you’re like me, you probably thought that the length of the marathon – 26.2 miles (you’ve seen the stickers on the back of runners’ cars everywhere) – was that peculiar for history reasons. After all, the race commemorates the feat of Pheidippides, who ran the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens to inform the citizenry of their victory over the Persians in 490 B.C. There were no gold medals for him, however – he dropped dead after delivering the good news.

Whatever actual truth might be buried in that legend, it would make sense if the length of the race run in honor of Pheidippides would be 25 miles long right?* In fact, it began that way in the 1896 Olympics in Athens, covering 24.85 miles. Likewise, the courses in Paris (1900) and St. Louis (1904) covered roughly 25 miles. It wasn’t until the 1908 Olympics in London that the 26.2 mile length became set.

Why the change? As with most things odd and British, the royals played a part:
For the 1908 Olympic marathon, the Princess of Wales watched the start, which began near the window of the royal nursery [at Windsor Castle] so that her children could watch, according to David Miller’s history of the Olympics, ‘Athens to Athens.’ Thus, Miller wrote, the marathon distance ‘was determined in a bizarre manner.’

* * *

It was about 26 miles from Windsor Castle to the Olympic Stadium in West London at Shepherd’s Bush. The original plan had the runners coming into the stadium at the royal entrance and running about 585 yards, circling the track counterclockwise and finishing in front of the royal box, Davis said. But the royal entrance was deemed unsuitable; instead the runners entered at the opposite end of the stadium and, to enhance the view for the Queen and others, ran clockwise for 385 yards to the royal box.
Thus, 26.2 miles. Now, it’s not for certain why the race started at Windsor Castle, but it did. And the last run ‘round the stadium produced a controversial finish (and an American winner – although the Italian who was disqualified got a song written about him by Irving Berlin) so it all worked.

And it shows the distance of the marathon isn’t set in stone, which is perhaps why some of today’s top runners think it should be lengthened. Says the current world record holder:
‘People are used to running’ 26.2 miles, [Kenyan Patrick] Makau said. ‘They run it like it is a short distance. Longer would be better.’
Sounds like what lots of drivers say about endurance races like the 12 Hours of Sebring or the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Still, nobody suggests making those longer – the 14 Hours of Sebring just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Nor does 30 miles. It’s much too round a number, compared to 26.2. Besides, do you really want all those car decorations to be obsolete?

* Real tough guys run another race in honor of Pheidippides’s earlier feats before the Battle of Marathon – the Spartathlon, which covers the 153 miles between Athens and Sparta.

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