The Marathon

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Barton Silverman / New York Times / Getty

Crowds of runners cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at the beginning of the New York City Marathon, Oct. 21, 1979

In the early hours of Nov. 1, some 40,000 athletes will gather on Staten Island in New York Harbor for one of the world's largest sporting competitions: the New York City Marathon. This year marks the 40th running of the race, which attracted just 127 competitors for its inaugural event in 1970, held completely within Central Park (only 55 crossed the finish line). Today, the New York marathon traces a path across four bridges and through all five of the city's boroughs; last year, Brazilian runner Marilson Gomes dos Santos won the men's event in 2 hr. 8 min. 43 sec. and Paula Radcliffe of England placed first among women in 2 hr. 23 min. 56 sec. It's not just New York's race that's grown over the years: 425,000 people finished marathons in the U.S. last year, according to Running USA, up from just 25,000 in 1976. But it's only in the relatively recent past that the notion of running 26.2 miles became a popular way to kill a few hours.

Legend holds that the world's first marathon was run — unintentionally — in 490 B.C. by a Greek soldier, Pheidippides, who ran the 25 miles to Athens from the town of Marathon to announce a battleground victory over the Persians. "Greetings, we win!" he shouted — and then fell to the ground, dead. It would be more than 2,000 years before the marathon would make its return, at the revival of the modern Olympic Games in Greece in 1896. In that event, 17 runners ran 40 km, or 24.8 miles, with Greek runner Spyridon Louis taking the gold medal with a time of 2 hr. 58 min. 50 sec. Inspired by the event's success, Boston inaugurated its race the next year; it is now the oldest annual marathon in the world. In 1908, the marathon course at the London Olympics ran from Windsor Castle to the royal box at the Olympic stadium in White City (some sources say the Princess of Wales wanted her children to watch the start of the race from their home). The length of the race continued varying for years, but in 1924 that specific distance — 42,195 m, or 26 miles, 385 yd. — was made the worldwide standard.

An estimated 800 marathons are now held around the world each year; 20 of them with 10,000 or more finishers. They include such punishing races as the Great Tibetan Marathon, held at 12,500 ft. above sea level; the Polar Circle Marathon, held on Greenland's ice cap; and the Pikes Peak marathon, which includes a 6,000-ft. climb to the summit of the Colorado mountain. Record times have fallen from close to three hours a century ago to close to two hours today, with Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie setting the current record in Berlin last year with a time of 2 hr. 3 min. 59 sec. (A fellow Ethiopian, Abebe Bikila, won worldwide acclaim after setting a record at the 1960 Olympics in Rome — running barefoot — and another in Tokyo four years later wearing shoes.) Radcliffe, the 2008 New York winner, set the women's record in 2003, breaking the tape in London in 2 hr. 15 min. 25 sec.

Women are a relatively new force on the marathon scene; for decades, 26 miles was considered simply too grueling for the fairer sex. The Boston Marathon in 1972 became the first major race to allow women; they were welcomed into the Olympic race in 1984. That's not to say it was the first time a woman had competed: in 1966, Roberta Gibb hid in bushes near the start of the Boston Marathon and then jumped into the race shortly after the starting gun fired, finishing (unofficially) in 3 hr. 21 min. 40 sec. The next year, Kathrine Switzer registered for the race as "K.V. Switzer," and Boston officials, unaware of her sex, allowed her to compete. Upon noticing K.V. was no man, a race official tried to physically remove her from the course; her boyfriend, running nearby, gave him a shove and she finished the race. (Switzer went on to win the New York City Marathon in 1974.) In 1980, women comprised 10.5% of marathon runners; today the figure is 41%.

A woman has also entered marathon lore as one of the most infamous competitors in race history. In 1980, Rosie Ruiz took first place in the Boston Marathon, crossing the finish line at 2 hr. 31 min. 56 sec. But there was a problem: competitors and officials never spotted the New York woman on the course during the race. As witnesses later verified, the 23-year-old had jumped out of a crowd of spectators about a half-mile from the finish line and simply sprinted to the end. An investigation revealed she had pulled a similar stunt in New York's race six months earlier. Unlike in Boston, she started and finished that race — but rode the subway for several miles in the middle.