“So, why is a marathon 26.2 miles?” you’ve asked yourself during one of those reflective moments since you decided to run (or walk) the Akron Marathon Race Series. “I mean, 26 I can get,” you’ve told yourself. “It’s a long, long distance. Maybe 25 would make more sense. Now, that's a nice, round number. But fine, throw in an extra mile. Still doesn’t explain that .2 hanging onto the end like a burr on a dog’s tail.”

Well, funny you should ask. Even funnier is the answer.

First, let’s explain that 26 miles. Maybe you know this part. Legend has it that in 490 B.C., the Greeks kicked some Persian butt in the city of Marathon. They were so excited about stopping an invasion, they sent a messenger to Athens to share the news. The guy ran 25 miles or so, delivered the word, then promptly dropped dead. The exhaustion killed him. This is why I don’t run the marathon. (Yeah, that's the reason.)



Many centuries later, planners of the 1896 Olympics - the start of the Games’ modern era - decided to commemorate that dramatic run with a foot race of about 25 miles. Back then, it was always “about” 25. Nobody was hung up on math. And that somewhat murky length remained the standard until the 1908 London Olympics.

Organizers of that event planned for the marathon runners to cross the finish line in front of the royal box at the Olympic stadium. But according to some historians, Queen Alexandra wanted the royal children to be able to see the athletes from the window of their nursery. To achieve that, they moved the starting line to the lawn of Windsor Castle. The extra length stretched the race to exactly 26 miles and 385 yards. For some reason, that strangely specific distance stuck.

You think 26.2 seems odd? For those who use the metric system, it’s 42.195 kilometers. Now there’s a wildly random figure to stick on a medal.

As fate would have it, those extra footfalls were the reason an American won the gold medal that year. I found this video taken of the event (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6xU6DiRKCg) which shows how officials felt so bad for some poor Italian chap who collapsed just before the finish line that they helped him up and across the mark. He was disqualified of course, giving the victory to the American behind him, but had the race been just a little bit shorter, looks to me like he would have made it under his own steam!

- Paula



Lesson from 1908: Don't let officials help you across the finish line.