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

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