There is no more storied event in the modern Olympics than the marathon, a symbol of both ancient Greece and the heroism of Phillipides, the fabled messenger returning to Athens from battle. The ability of a runner to conquer both the marathon distance as well as the environmental conditions that often accompany such events has an appeal that transcends sport.
It was fitting that another Greek, Spiridon Louis (1873–1940), won the first modern Olympic marathon competition in 1896. His time of 2 hours 50 minutes was achieved on a 24-mile course (40 km); the modern standard distance of 26.2 miles (42.2 km) was established at the London Olympics of 1908, where the race course was lengthened to accommodate the wishes of the reigning monarch, King Edward VII (1841–1910), who wished to view the finish of the race from the balcony of his Windsor Castle home.
Paralleling the interest generated by the first modern Olympic competition, the inaugural Boston Marathon was run in 1897. Arguably the world's most famous road race, the expression "qualifying for Boston" has been a part of the distance-running lexicon for decades. The Boston Marathon is both an elite running championship, as well as a performance goal for the serious recreational runner.
Both the Boston Marathon and the Olympics have crowned and created running legends. Emil Zátopek (1922–2000) won the at the Helsinki Olympics marathon in 1952, only a few days after capturing the 5,000-m and 10,000-m championships; Abebe Bikila (1932–1973) won the 1960 Rome Olympic race running barefoot, and then repeated as champion in 1964 at Tokyo; Bill Rogers won the Boston Marathon four times between 1975 and 1980, and along with countryman and 1972 Olympic champion Frank Shorter, Rogers became an American running icon.
Marathon running has never been far from the public consciousness, given the attention paid to the Olympics and the Boston Marathon, even where recreational marathon participation was low in comparison to other sports. Consequently, information concerning equipment and training methods was not widely circulated beyond the hardcore running community. The first great running boom in North America in the late 1970s brought the marathon and its associated training systems into the mainstream.
Running generally, and marathon running particularly, has experienced a remarkable growth due to a
The advent of the professional runner and prize money races also contributed to the marathon boom. London, New York, Rotterdam, Chicago, and numerous other major cities sought to attract large fields to their races by offering significant prizes to the elite racers, while creating an "event" atmosphere, designed to induce the recreational runner to attend.
The worldwide marathon boom is reflected in the data regarding the best times achieved in the marathon by men and women. From a best of 2 hours 50 minutes in 1910, the men's world record in 2005 had fallen to 2 hours 4 minutes. From 1967, when Kathryn Switzer became the first woman to participate in the previously male-only Boston Marathon, the best female marathon times have steadily fallen as participation levels have risen. The 2 hours 48 minutes standard set in 1979 has been reduced to the 2005 world record of 2 hours 15 minutes.
One of the attractions of the marathon is that, with training, almost anyone can physically complete the distance. Unlike team sports, the recreational runner and the elite racer are physically competing in an identical race; only the competitive result is different. Each is exposed to the same physical and mental stresses over the marathon distance, and each must approach their respective regimes in a similar fashion. Overuse injuries, brought on by excessive training or improper attention to rest and recovery, are the cause of the greatest number of physical problems for each group.
Training methods aside, the ability to run a marathon in a world-class time will be determined to a large degree by body type and related physiological factors such as oxygen uptake. Variables such as strength to weight ratio, stride length, individual biomechanics, and body fat percentage all factor into marathoning success. Sport scientific research conducted over the past 20 years confirms that the ideal male marathoner will typically be 5 ft 8 in (1.70 m) to 6 ft (1.80 m) tall, with weights between 120 lb (55 kg) to 145 lb (66 kg). For women, the ideal build will range between 5 ft 2 in (1.6 m) and 5 ft 10 in (1.75 m) in height, with weights between 90 lb (41 kg) and 125 lbs (56 kg). These optimum builds are ones that are significantly smaller and slighter than those of the typical North American or European male or female; the Olympic and world championship dominance of African marathoners in recent years, particularly those runners from Kenya and Ethiopia, is confirmation of the importance of size and physique in this demanding sport.