If you’re one of the chosen few running Boston in three weeks, congratulations. All the heavy lifting is done. Now all you have to do is run. Boston is inarguably the greatest race in the country–if not the world. It’s the one race nearly every runner aspires to run.
Hopefully, Patriot’s Day weather will be cool and with a tail wind this year. As you are running, many thoughts will likely cross your mind during your long journey. And one just might be: Why the heck is Boston and every marathon on the planet precisely 26 miles, 385 yards?
It’s a good question, one that beginners and veteran marathoners all over the world have wondered for more than 100 years. Why such an odd distance has become the worldwide standard is rooted in the ancient past.
One might assume that the weird distance must have something to do with the Greeks who brought us the ancient Olympics. But the Greeks didn’t have any races longer than three miles in the Olympics. (Guess they didn’t have GU back then.)
The Greeks utilized messengers who ran long distances between cities to deliver news of the day. But these messengers were not considered great athletes. Instead, they were mere laborers who happened to be able to run long distances. One such laborer was Pheidippides who in BC 490 ran to Sparta from Athens to get some help after the Persians landed at Marathon. Our boy ended up covering 150 miles in two days.
Then, legend has it, the next day Pheidippides ran 24 miles from the Battle on the Plains of Marathon back to Athens to announce victory over the invading Persian army. Pheidippides supposedly yelled, “Rejoice. We conquer!” And then dropped dead.
Still, it’s open to considerable debate among scholars whether Pheidippides ever did any such run, but when Baron de Coubertin of France revived the ancient Greek Olympics in 1896, a 24-mile race from Marathon to Athens to commemorate Pheidippides’ historic run was included, That race became the highlight of the Games when another Greek– Spiridon Louis–ran 2:58:50 to win the first Olympic Marathon.
Again, it was only 24 miles back then. The following year when the Boston Marathon was run for the first time (in 1897), nobody gave any thought to following the Olympic lead as far as exact distance, so 18 guys ran from Ashland to downtown Boston which so happened to be about 25 miles. (Little known fact: The first actual marathon in America was in 1896 and went from Columbus Circle in Stamford, Connecticut to Columbus Circle in New York City which is about the same distance as Boston.)
After Boston, the next two Olympic Marathons were held in 1900 in Paris and 1904 in St. Louis and both races were approximately 24 ½-25 miles.
Not until 1908 did the marathon distance become what we now consider the standard 26 miles, 385 yards. These Olympics were held in London and the marathon course was to start at Windsor Castle and pass through several villages before finishing at the White City Olympic Stadium which was almost exactly 26 miles.
Queen Alexandra of England planned to sit in her Royal Box at the stadium and Olympic organizers figured it would be a nice touch to have the marathoners finish the race right in front of her. One problem. Her box was on the opposite side of the tunnel from where the marathoners would enter the stadium which meant they would then have to run a half lap around the track inside the stadium to finish in front of the Queen’s box.
The distance from the tunnel to the Queen’s box was 385 yards. Since there wasn’t any standardized marathon distance, Olympic organizers decided to leave the 26-mile route as is and lengthen it by a mere 385 yards to 26 miles, 385 yards. After all, what’s another 385 yards?
As it turned out, that additional 385 yards was a bit too far for a tiny Italian. In what was the most famous marathon in Olympic history, Dorando Pietri of Italy entered the stadium as the first runner, but turned the wrong way on the track after being turned around. Pietri then collapsed on the track in the oppressive heat at the 26-mile mark with just 385 yards to go.
One of the running heroes of his day, Pietri was assisted to his feet by officials (a no-no). The delirious Italian was half dragged the extra distance by officials and finally staggered first across the finish line. Unfortunately for him, he was later disqualified and the gold medal went to Johnny Hayes of the United States (one of only three American men to ever win the Olympic marathon).
Boston changed its distance the year before the London Olympics. In 1907, it lengthened its course from 24 miles to 26 as the start was moved from Ashland to a few miles west to tiny Hopkinton. This was done because a bridge was closed and the field of 124 couldn’t line up on it. Plus, the move to Hopkinton meant Boston could have a wider start and avoid some railroad tracks. Still, it wasn’t the 26 mile, 385-yard distance.
The first American marathon to utilize the 26 mile, 385-yard distance was in Yonkers, New York. On New Year’s Day of 1909, the 26.2-mile marathon distance was used for the first time in America with Bob Fowler of Cambridge, Massachusetts winning in the fastest time in the world in 2:52:54.
Ironically, the Olympics would not adopt the 26 mile, 385-yard distance until 1924 when the Olympics returned to Paris for the second time. (In 1920, the Olympic marathon course in Antwerp was actually too long.) But in Paris, the marathon distance was standardized as 42.195 kilometers or 26 miles, 385 yards—the exact same distance as the 1908 London Olympics.
There is no record of why it was decided that this would be the standard distance for marathons all over the world. But there appears to have been a heavy British influence on the committee that decided this which may explain why it reverted back to the distance of the famed 1908 Olympic Marathon of 26 miles, 385 yards.
That extra 385 yards might not seem like much, but after running 26 miles, it can seem like an eternity. It takes most tired, depleted marathoners an additional two or three minutes to cover the last 385 yards.
And now you know who to blame/thank for the additional 385 yards: The Queen of England. That bitch.
O The 89th Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays kicked off yesterday with the decathlon and women’s heptathlon at Mike Myers Stadium on the UT campus. Tonight’s schedule includes all the distance events, beginning at 7. Admission is free all day today. But tickets can be purchased at the Myers box office for Friday and Saturday.
O All in all, more than 7500 athletes will compete in the Relays Some of the distance runners competing tonight include our own Leonel Manzano (800 meters), Rogue’s Austin Bussing, Dave Hickerson and Matt Cleaver in the 5000. Just about all the top Longhorns will run the Relays, including two-time NCAA champ Morolake Akinosun (relays), six-time NCAA champ Courtney Okolo, Zack Bilderback, Ariel Jones and Robert Uhr (5000). Former UT stars Marquise Goodwin (long jump), Ryan Crouser (shot) and Ashley Spencer will also compete.
O Last Relays: The Longhorn Network will televise the meet, starting at 4:30 today, Friday at 9:30 and Saturday from 1:30-5:30.
O In the newest FloTrack outdoor pre-season track rankings, the Oregon men top the list with A&M ranked fourth and Texas seventh. The Aggies top the women’s rankings with UT seventh again.
O No use crying over the fact that Houston lost out to Los Angeles to host the ’16 Olympic Marathon Trials. (Houston has hosted the Trials twice—in 1992 and 2012.) Many have assumed, including me, that Houston will climb back in the saddle and bid again for the ’20 Trials. Says a Houston insider, maybe yes, maybe not. Standing in the way of another Houston bid is the commitment in time and manpower it takes to pull the Trials off, plus a little matter of a $2 million tab for the rights to do so. Houston has until the ’17 USATF Convention last November to decide whether they want to bid on the Trials again.
O NBC has announced it will televise 76 hours of the ’16 Olympic Trials, including more than 60 hours in primetime. Track and field will get the bulk of that coverage, including seven primetime telecasts, beginning on July 1. NBC, or NBCSN will televise nearly all of the track finals from Eugene, Oregon, July 1-10. The Rio Olympics take place from August 5-21.
O Congrats to Texas Running Post’s very own Michael Madison and his wife Tessa on the birth yesterday of their first child, a daughter: Finley June Madison. Mom and daughter are doing just fine.
O More congrats to Scott Hippensteel, the long-time cross-country and track coach at Lockhart HS. Scott, one of the co-owners of Ready to Run, was recently named the best coach in Caldwell County.
O BTW: Saturday is the running of one of my favorite races—the Lockhart Kiwanis 5-K Stampede. I can’t run this year, but if you want to run the flattest 5-K in Central Texas this is the race for you. Terrific age group awards and even though Lockhart’s famed barbecue isn’t part of the race package, many head over to one of the famous spots after the race for an early lunch. For info, go to www.bswarms.com/swarms396.
O If you’re into running collectibles, all-time great distance runner Craig Virgin is selling a bunch of his old running shoes (used in some of his greatest races) and other gear. Some of the shoes, mostly Adidas, are special shoes, made especially for him. If interested, go to eBay and let the bidding begin.
O The open-water season gets underway on Saturday at 9 at the Pure Austin Quarry (4210 W. Braker Lane). The opener is a little 750-meter loop of the Quarry course. The distances will vary and the races will continue through October on the first Saturday of each month.
O The first race in the Rogue Trail series—The Maze—is Sunday at Walnut Creek. This is a 30-K on tough trails and includes several creek crossings which may still be wet from recent rains. For more info, go to roguerunning.com.
O What I’m listening to this morning: “Wildflowers,” by Tom Petty. The great “solo” album by Petty really wasn’t much of a solo effort. Petty is backed up by all the Heartbreakers with the exception of drummer Stan Lynch who quit the band after the record was released. (Ringo Starr plays drums on one song.)
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