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The modern Athens Marathon commemorates the run of the soldier Pheidippides from a battlefield at the site of the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens in 490 B.C., bringing news of a Greek victory over the Persians. Legend has it that Pheidippides delivered the momentous message “Niki!” (“victory”), then collapsed and died, thereby setting a precedent for dramatic conclusions to the marathon.
When the modern Olympic games were inaugurated in 1896 in Greece, the legend of Pheidippides was revived by a 24.85 mile (40,000 meters) run from Marathon Bridge to Olympic stadium in Athens. Traditionally the final event in the Olympics, the first organized marathon on April 10, 1896 was especially important to all Greeks. Greece was hosting those first modern Olympic Games. The Greeks had yet to win a medal, and had one final chance to bring glory to their nation. Twenty-five runners assembled on Marathon Bridge.
The starter mumbled a few words and fired the gun, and the race was on. “The excitement of the crowd waiting at the finish line at the newly constructed replica of Athens’ ancient stadium was beyond description” writes the Greek historian Quercetani. Spiridon Louis, a Greek postal worker from the village of Marusi and veteran of several long military marches, crossed the finish line a full seven minutes ahead of the pack. His time was 2 hours, 58 minutes, 50 seconds for the 40 kilometer distance (average pace of 7:11 minutes per mile). When it was all over nine runners finished, 8 of them Greeks. The host nation was ecstatic, and the marathon was born.
The United States was one of 9 nations at the 1896 Athens Olympics, thanks to sponsorship of athletes by the Boston Athletic Association. Middle distance runner Arthur Blake was the only American to enter the first marathon. Blake won a silver medal in the 1500 meters 3 days before the marathon but unfortunately this left him exhausted and he dropped out after about 14.5 miles. Planning for North America’s first marathon began on the boat back to United States. The first annual Boston Athletic Association marathon was conducted on April 19, 1897, the date chosen to commemorate the famous ride of Paul Revere in 1775.
At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, the marathon distance was changed to 26 miles to cover the ground from Windsor Castle to White City stadium, with 385 yards added on so the race could finish in front of royal family’s viewing box. This added two miles to the course, and is the origin of the Marathon tradition of shouting “God save the Queen!” (or other words relating to the Queen) as mile post 24 is passed. After 16 years of extremely heated discussion, this 26.2 mile distance was established at the 1924 Olympics in Paris as the official marathon distance.
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