History of the Marathon


Today in Boston, Massachusetts is the running of the Boston Marathon the oldest and longest running (no pun intended) annual marathon event, at least in the Western World. It began in 1897, the year following the reintroduction of the marathon competition in the first modern Olympics in 1896. This large event typically features roughly 20,000 participants and is one of more than 800 marathons held each year worldwide. It is held annually on Patriots’ Day which used to be fixed on April 19, but is now the third Monday in April.

The race begins in Hopkinton, Massachusetts where buses drop off the runners in front of the world headquarters of EMC Corporation, and the traffic nearby gets fierce. The course winds east toward Boston, about a “marathon’s distance” away or 26.22 miles where it ends at Copley Square. Historically, the Boston Red Sox baseball team holds a game at Fenway Park to coincide with the race finishing the last mile in front of Kenmore Square.

Originally the word Marathon comes from the legendary run of Pheidippides, a Greek soldier who ran from Marathon to Athens in ancient Greece. The story goes that he ran all the way without stopping until he arrived at the Senate where he proclaimed “We have won” against the Persians and then fell from heart attack and died. The 1st century historian Plutarch first records in writing this story quoting a lost work. In the late 19th century Robert Browning immortalized the runner in his poem “Pheidippides” cementing the story into popular historic legend.

Traditionally the word “Marathon” has become synonymous with a long endurance race in contrast to a shorter sprint race. The Marathon was a popular feature in the ancient Olympics and even the Apostle Paul seems to have been aware of it — King Herod the Great sponsored the Olympic games of 12 B.C. — and Paul was perhaps alluding to the Olympics when he wrote to the church in Corinth:

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly.
1 Corinthians 9:24-25

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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