Eliud Kipchoge crosses the finish line to win gold in the marathon at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

CAPE TOWN - Most race distances in athletics are set on the basis of round numbers.

In the past that meant the half mile, one mile and three miles on the track and five, eight and 10 miles on the road. In metric days we have 800m, 1 500m and 5 000m on the track and road races over 10 kilometres, 15km and even 50 and 100km.

The major exception is that of the “standard marathon”, an apparently arbitrary, but precise, distance of 26 miles 385 yards (42.195km).

This is the distance which will be run through the Mother City on Sunday in the Cape Town Marathon. How did this arise?

Most marathoners have an idea that this somewhat arbitrary distance is equal to that allegedly run by a Greek warrior in ancient history, but this is only partly true. 

Few will know that the modern marathon is based on a request by the then Queen of England to start the Olympic Marathon at Windsor Castle so the youngest royals could watch from their bedrooms!

It is well-known that the modern Olympics were based on the ancient Greek Games, which took place over one thousand years from around 775 BC. But these Games never included long-distance races.

When French aristocrat, Pierre de Coubertin, founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894 it was decided to include a marathon over the distance run by Pheidippides in 490 BC, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greeks' victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon.

But Pheidippides is believed to have run between 35 and 40km (after running a far more gruelling 240km in two days prior to that feat) and the first (male only) modern Olympic marathon was raced over 40km.

It was won by local soldier, Louis Spiridon, in 2hr 58min 50sec, an effort which earned him fame and apparently some fortune.

This was the distance used for the marathon in 1900 and 1904, but at the Games in London in 1908 the originally planned course was lengthened to accommodate the British Royal Family.

The story is that Queen Alexandra requested that the race start on the Windsor Castle lawns visible from the Castle Nursery so the youngest royals could watch the start.

The distance between Windsor Castle and White City Stadium, was found to measure 26.2 miles, but this distance was only finally adopted by the IAAF in 1921 as the definitive “standard marathon”.

The honour of the first athlete to officially hold the world record for the “standard marathon” is thus the 2008 Olympic marathon gold medallist, American Johnny Haynes who won in 2:55:18.

Over 150 runners are expected to beat this first world record at Sunday’s Marathon, with the front runners striving to get much closer to the two hour rather than three-hour mark in the race.

Cape Times

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