History of the Marathon


Today in Boston, Massachusetts, is the running of the Boston Marathon, beginning at the start line in Hopkinton at 10:00 AM and following 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. Due to United States’ involvement in World War I in 1918, a military relay race was held instead.

In 2021 the race featured only 20,000 runners due to the Coronavirus. In 2020, the event was virtual for the same reason. 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 held on the third Monday in April.


Marathon Route

boston marathon 2019The race traditionally begins in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Some buses drop off the runners in front of the world headquarters of EMC Corporation (now part of Dell Technologies), at least they did when I worked there, and the traffic nearby gets congested.

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.


Origin of the Marathon

illustration map GreeceOriginally 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 26+ miles all the way between these two cities without stopping until he arrived at the 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, and 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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