Know It All: Why is a Marathon 26.2 Miles?

We all prefer round numbers so why does the world's most famous footrace measure in at such an odd figure?

Everybody has that moment when they realize they don’t know about something that they should probably know about. Whether it’s history, language, science, or cultural phenomena, you’ve felt the stinging personal embarrassment of a moment wherein you realize there’s some common knowledge that isn’t so common. Don’t feel bad; nobody knows everything. Nobody, that is, except me and my sidekick, The Internet!

Somewhere in the world, a confused soul begs the question…

Why is a Marathon 26.2 Miles?

We all prefer round numbers. Nobody says, “I’ll be home in 7 minutes” or “I want to lose 12 pounds” – usually, our preferred figures end in zero or five. So why does the world’s most famous long-distance footrace clock in at the odd figure of 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers, for those of you outside of America)?

Quite simply: because that was the distance between the Greek cities of Marathon and Athens.

As always, there’s more to it than that. Legend dictates that, following the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC (part of the Greco-Persian Wars), a Greek messenger named Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce that the Greeks had defeated the Persians in this particular battle. Pheidippides and his feat were immediately canonized and the distance traversed instantly symbolized grand accomplishment.

As is the case with all ancient stories, the accuracy of the above account has come into question over the years, with various other men (with names like Thersipus and Eucles) being credited with making the Marathon trip.

Regardless, if someone were to make a trip from Marathon to Athens on foot around 490 BC, that person traversed about 42 kilometers of land. This Marathon-to-Athens route was used as the basis for one of the most popular events designed to celebrate Greek history for the inaugural modern Olympics, in 1896. The distance of the marathon event varied for the first few Olympics (ranging between 40 and 42.75 kms) until 1921 when the International Amateur Athletic Federation established the now-standard measurement of 42.195 kilometers.

Or, in America: 26.2 miles.

Now you know.

Justin Brown is an artist and writer living in Virginia. He channels most of his enthusiasm into making things for his online art shop, Artness! by Justin Brown. You can keep up to date with him, his worldly adventures, and his dogs by following him on Instagram and on Facebook

  • MysNThr0p3

    Prior to 1908, marathons were pretty arbitrarily set based on the distance from the gates of Marathon to the stadium in Athens. It was roughly set between 25 or 26 miles.

    “The 1908 marathon course was measured backwards from the finish to the start

    For the first time, the course in London was precisely measured, and a detailed course map was published. The 1908 marathon course was measured backwards from the finish to the start, which had been set as the east terrace of Windsor Castle.

    This starting point was chosen so that members of the Royal Family would be able to start off the marathon. The planned 25 miles from the entrance of the “Great Stadium” ended at Barnespool Bridge in Eton, and the distance from there to the start was one more mile, making the total course length 26-miles.

    The marathon was then to end directly in front of the Royal Box in the London Olympic Stadium – meaning one complete stadium lap would not be possible, as had originally been called for. The distance from the entrance of the stadium to the Royal Box was 385 yards. This made the formula for the London marathon “25 miles + 1 mile + 385 yards; that makes 42.195km. The official report, however, falsely calculated the conversion, listing it as 42.263km.

    To make it comparable, the rematch, which took place between Hayes and Pietri after the 1908 Olympic Games, was also run on a course based upon the London measurements of 42.195km = 26 miles, 385 yards. This then served as a quasi-standard for the marathon course, which some marathon organisers followed from then on.”


  • Justin

    I’m about to run my first half marathon in a few weeks. I can’t imagine running 26.2 miles.

    I can’t imagine running to the point in which my nipples bleed through my shirt and/or bib #. Guess there’s a first time for everything.
    .-= Justin´s last blog ..The future and the past. =-.

    • Nick

      band-aids over the nip’s are key! 🙂

      • Ryan

        nothing like replying to a 4 year old comment :). Just ran my first full marathon this weekend – never ran a half, or a 5k, or anything else – just did a marathon instead. Although it took me 5h 3m to complete, I survived it to where I can tell my children about it….Anyway, rather than using band-aids, I used vaseline. Worked well in training. In the race, it made it to about mile 25 before they started to get sore – but never bled!

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  • Kevin Patrick Carey

    maybe you should mention to that this messenger died after running this distance. Humans weren’t designed to run long distances

    • Manas

      Lol, humans over the age of 70 have run 156 miles (Sahara Marathon). It just takes practice