YOU WERE WONDERING The marathon is 26 miles, 385 yards. Why such an odd distance?

When the modern Olympics were begun in 1896, the first few Games featured marathons of slightly different distances (from 40,000 meters to 41,860). In London in 1908, the standard was set at 42,195 meters.

Why? The British Olympic Committee decided to have the race start at the royal residence at Windsor Castle and end in front of the royal box in the stadium in London, a distance of 26 miles, 385 yards (or 42,195 meters). The 1912 race in Stockholm (40,200 meters) and the one in 1920 in Antwerp (42,750) were at varying distances, but somehow when the 1924 Games in Paris rolled around, the 42,195 meters was agreed on as the standard, which was then adopted by all marathons.

Those are all men's races. The first -- modern at least -- women's marathon was run in 1984 in Los Angeles.

We could note here that the famous tale from which the idea of a "marathon" run sprang might not have ever happened. The legend is that a Greek soldier in 490 B.C. ran from the Plain of Marathon to Athens (a distance of just under 23 miles) to bring news of the Greek victory over the Persian army. Upon saying, "Rejoice, we have won!" he collapsed and died.

The marathon was run in the ancient Greek Olympic Games, a quadrennial five-day event that brought competitors from all the Greek cities. Early events included boxing, wrestling, running, pentathlon and horse and chariot races.


The marathon of about 25 miles was competed in the nude.

When the marathon was part of the revival of the Olympics in 1896, it was competed from Marathon to Athens with great anticipation. Only one of the 17 runners had raced that far before, and even he crumbled as one leader after another ran out of gas.

Eventually the local crowd of 100,000 was treated to a victory by one of their own, Spiridon Louis. He quietly accepted his prize and let writers of the day concoct all kinds of stories: he ran the race in hopes of convincing the king to grant clemency to his jailed brother (he had no brother); he was a poor shepherd; he was a rich farmer; a soldier; a post office messenger.

History has never sorted it all out. It's clear he turned down gifts from Athens businesses (jewelry, clothing, haircuts, sewing machines, money) accepting only a horse and cart which were needed to transport water to his village.

Louis was asked to come back in 1936 to present a laurel wreath from the sacred grove at Olympia to ... Adolf Hitler. He died in 1940, credited with giving the new Olympics an inspirational jolt it needed to keep going through the difficult early years, according to "The Complete Book of the Olympics."

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