History of the Marathon: Ancient and Modern


Today in Boston, Massachusetts, the Boston Marathon will be run. It begins at the start line in Hopkinton, MA, at 10:00 AM and follows the race route into Boston.

This is 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 into the first modern Olympics in 1896.

Two years ago, the race featured only 20,000 runners due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Otherwise, this large event typically features over 30,000 participants from all 50 states and over a hundred countries – and half a million spectators – and is one of more than 800 marathons held each year worldwide.

It differs from other marathons in that it requires a qualifying time from another marathon, run within a limited date range on a particular type, of course. The Boston Marathon is held annually on Patriots’ Day – which used to be fixed on April 19, signifying the beginning of the Revolutionary War – but is now on the third Monday in April.


Marathon Route

boston marathon 2019The race traditionally begins in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. The runners would arrive in the parking lot at 52 South Street in front of Dell Technologies (formerly the world headquarters of EMC Corporation.)

When I worked in the building, Boston Athletic Association shuttle buses would pick up runners there and then transport them to the Athletes’ Village area before the start. The traffic nearby would get congested, and some workers would work from home rather than park at the office.

The course starts on Main Street and then winds east toward Boston, about a “marathon’s distance” away or 26.22 miles, where it ends at Copley Square, downtown, having run through eight Massachusetts cities and towns: Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley (as in the college), Newton, Brookline, and Boston proper.

Traditionally, 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.


How Many Run the Boston Marathon?

Tens of thousands have run the Boston Marathon in recent years, except during the Pandemic. It started with just 18 participants in 1897. The number of finishers of the race has also grown.



Boston Marathon Runners. Source


Origin of the Marathon

illustration map GreeceOriginally, the word Marathon comes from the legendary run of Pheidippides, a Greek courier. He had already run about 150 miles in two days to request help from Sparta when the Persians landed at Marathon, Greece.

He then ran from Marathon to Athens in Greece. The story goes that he ran 26+ miles all the way between these two cities without stopping until he arrived at the Athenian Senate, where he proclaimed,

“We have won!”

against the Persians, and then fell and died from a heart attack.

The 1st-century historian Plutarch first recorded in writing this story by quoting a lost work. In the late 19th century, Robert Browning immortalized the runner in his poem “Pheidippides,” cementing the story into popular legend.

Traditionally, the word Marathon has become synonymous with a long endurance race compared to a shorter sprint race. The Marathon was a popular feature in the ancient Olympics. Even the Apostle Paul seems to have been aware of it – Israel’s King Herod the Great sponsored the Olympic Games of 12 B.C. – and St. 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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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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