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A runner approaches Tower Bridge

The history of the London Marathon

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What are the origins of the London Marathon?

According to Greek Historian Herodotus (AKA ‘the father of history’), when the Persians landed at Marathon in 490 BC to attack Athens, their plan was foiled by a messenger, Pheidippides. The Ancient Greek ran 260 kilometres from Marathon to Sparta to request help. According to other Ancient sources, the runner variously called Eukles or Thersippos, ran to Marathon to proclaim the Spartan victory against the Persians, after which he collapsed and died. Regardless of the origin of the story, the idea of a heroic runner became established in the public imagination.

There was a London Marathon in 1908

In part, the ‘new’ London version of the marathon (founded by a pair of athletes, John Disley and Chris Brasher) derives from the marathon that took place in 1908 as part of the Olympic Games.

The Olympic Games as we know it didn’t begin until 1896, so the London Marathon was quick to get off the mark. However, unlike the Boston Marathon, established a year after the first modern Olympics and considered to be the oldest marathon in the world, the London Marathon didn’t carry on. However, it did inspire the Polytechnic Marathon. ‘the Poly’ as it became known was founded by the Polytechnic Harriers, an athletics club affiliated with the London Polytechnic on Regent’s Street.

What was the Poly?

It may come as surprise to some that between 1909 and 1996, London did have a regular London-based marathon, which means that between 1981 and 1996 London had two marathons running concurrently, the Poly and the London Marathon of today. The difference between the two events was minimal. The route was different while the new London Marathon was organised as a mass race in which women were permitted to participate, unlike the Poly where official female participation was banned.

We shouldn’t forget the remarkable achievements of one Violet Piercy, the first woman to be officially timed in the Poly on October 3, 1926. Piercy clocked a time of 3:40:22. However, because she was a woman, for 37 years the time was recorded as ‘unofficial’.

The end of the Poly

The Poly was already in decline when the London Marathon began in 1981 and, arguably, it was finished off by the new kid on the block. By the time the London Marathon started in 1981, the Polytechnic Harriers were preparing themselves to move out of their established HQ in Hartington Road, Chiswick. The running club merged with Kingston AC and moved to the Surrey address of the latter. Roughly a decade later, beset with financial and planning woes, the Poly was no more.


The Start of the (new) London Marathon

On 29th March 1981, 7,747 of 20,000 applicants, set off from Blackheath in the Southeast of London to begin the first official London Marathon. The route was pretty much the same then as it is today. It winds around the Thames, passing by some of the capital’s most historic landmarks, before concluding in The Mall to the west of the City. Between 1982 and 1993 the race finished on Westminster Bridge.

While the event began at the end of March, since 1983 it’s been held in April. However, due to Covid, the 2020 event was postponed and since 2021 it’s taken place in October. It is ultimately expected to return to its spring origins from 2023. What has changed is the number of participants, in April 2019 there were 56,398 runners from 414,168 applicants. Those lucky enough to be given the opportunity to race are picked at random after entering a ballot.

London Marathon Facts:

London Marathon course records

Men: 2:02:37 Eliud Kipchoge, 2019; Women: 2:15:25 Paula Radcliffe, 2003; Wheelchair Men: 1:26:27 Marcel Hug, 2021; Wheelchair Women: 1:39:52 Manuela Schär, 2021.

The first person to win the London Marathon was, er, two people!

And, to date, it’s the only ever tie, when Norwegian Inge Simonsen crossed the line holding hands with American Chris Beardsley in 2 hours, 11 minutes, 48 seconds.

The first modern Olympic marathons were around 25 miles (40 km)

Which is approximately the distance between Marathon and Athens. The standard length of 26 miles and 385 yards was originally run in the 1908 Games in London, however, it was not until the 1924 Paris Olympics that this distance became the standard.

And the oldest person to run the London Marathon?

That’ll be Jenny Wood-Allen who, at 90, became the oldest runner to finish the race in 2002. It took 11 hours and 34 minutes to finish, so maybe ‘runner’ is pushing it a little. But well done anyway.

The London Marathon is a prime location for breaking a record or two

Never mind two, there are dozens of official Guinness World Record attempts at the London Marathon every year, including ‘fastest marathon dressed as a plant’ and ‘fastest marathon carrying a household appliance’.

The October 2020 London Marathon was held virtually

And it was awarded another Guinness World Record title for the 'most users to run a remote marathon in 24 hours'. Around 45,000 people ran the 2020 virtual race on their own route, participants had to complete the 26.2 miles on a course of their choice between 00:00:00 to 23:59:59 BST.