Who Was Pheidippides, the First Marathoner?

Why Is the Marathon 26.2 Miles?

Runner in the Athens Marathon
Nick Laham/Getty Images

The first race ever to be called a marathon was held in 1896 at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, but the roots of the marathon trace back much farther. The long distance race was the final event of those Olympic games and was intended to re-create and commemorate the legendary run of Pheidippides (Phidippides) in 490 B.C.

In that year, the Persians invaded Greece, landing near the plains of Marathon on Greece’s eastern coast. Pheidippides, a hemerodromo, or Athenian runner-messenger, was sent to Sparta to ask for help. At the time, Greek messengers are believed to have been able to cover more than 100 kilometers a day. However, according to legend, Pheidippides was an exceptional runner and covered the 250 kilometers (150 miles) to Sparta in only two days, much of it over uneven and rocky terrain.

Unfortunately, when Pheidippides reached Sparta, the city was in the midst of a religious celebration that didn’t allow them to mobilize troops until the full moon. When the Spartans finally left for Athens several days later, the battle was already over. Although overwhelmingly outnumbered by the invading Persian Army, the Athenians had defeated their enemy, killing 6,400 Persian troops and losing very few of their own men.

A second (probably legendary) story says that Pheidippides ran from Athens to Marathon to take part in the battle, and then returned with news of the stunning victory to Athens. He supposedly ran a route that took him south along the coast and up across a series of coastal foothills before heading into Athens, a distance of about 25 miles from the plains of Marathon. According to the legend, Pheidippides announced, “Rejoice, we are victorious!” as he arrived in Athens. It is said that those were his last words before he collapsed and died.

First Modern Marathon

The route to Athens that Pheidippides ran was re-created at those first modern Olympic Games in Greece, where marathon competitors ran from the plains in Marathon to the Olympic stadium in downtown Athens. A Greek marathoner named Spiridon Loues won the event, which was the only gold medal in track and field won by the home country that year. Today, the Athens Marathon runs every November, giving race participants a chance to run the same legendary, historic course.

The Legend of Pheidippides Lives On

Although some historians doubt the accuracy of Pheidippides’ epic journeys, centuries later, he still commands respect and legendary status among marathon runners and aficionados as the first marathoner. He even sometimes gets referred to on marathon spectator signs, with lines such as, “You know that the first guy to do this died, right?” or “Don’t you wish Pheidippides had died here?”

So, Why Is the Marathon Distance 26.2 Miles?

If Pheidippides’ route from Marathon to Athens was about 25 miles, why is the modern marathon distance now 26.2 miles?

For the first modern marathon in 1896 and about a dozen years after, the official distance was 25 miles. That was the distance run in the 1900 Olympic marathon in Paris and at the 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis, as well as the distance of the Boston Marathon, which started in 1897.

Then, for the 1908 London Olympic Games, the British designed a marathon course that started at Windsor Castle, so the royal family could see the start of the race, and finished at the Olympic stadium. In those days, race courses were not certified, so no one challenged the course accuracy. From start to finish, the 1908 Olympic marathon course was exactly 26 miles and 385 yards (26.2 miles) and, for whatever reason, that become the standard for future marathon courses. So, if you’re ever struggling during that last 1.2 mile of a marathon (and, let’s face it, who isn’t having a tough time at that point?), you can thank the Brits for giving you that extra mile and change.

Where Can I Run a Marathon?

You don’t need to travel to Greece to run the original marathon course. Check out these lists of some of the best marathons run throughout the U.S. and all over the world.

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