The official marathon distance works partly because it is such an oddity that it begs for attention. Instead of the distance conforming to some regular interval, it tacks on those mysterious 385 yards to add to the mystique.
Ancient history, as many people know, plays a role in the marathon’s length. It spins out of the legendary run of Pheidippedes, a Greek messenger, who supposedly ran from the battlefield in Marathon to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians, only to collapse and die. The story may be apocryphal but it’s a wonderful part of the race’s modern lore.
When the modern Olympics began in 1896 in Athens, the organizers wanted to make a connection to ancient Greece, so the marathon was created. It was 40 kilometers or roughly 25 miles long, the approximate distance Phheidippedes might have run. The marathon has remained part of the Olympics ever since, and uses the men’s race as the capstone on the final day of competition. (The women’s marathon was added in 1984 in Los Angeles).
Marathon racing didn’t fix on 26 miles and 385 yards as the official distance until 1921, when the decision was made to use the distance of the 1908 London Olympic marathon. That unusual distance grew out of an effort to have the race from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium extended enough to finish in front of the Royal Box.
This historical background is an appealing factor, but so too is the feeling that the distance requires a heroic effort to complete. Much is often made of how runners hit “a wall” at about 20 miles, but push through to the finish line on grit and determination.
The magic of this distance has played a role in popularizing the marathon with the masses, who have found that with concerted training that it’s possible for recreational runners to complete the race – and participate in the same event with world-class athletes.