Have you ever come home from a “marathon” day at school? Maybe you’ve watched a movie marathon on television on a Saturday? Do you know someone who has participated in a dance marathon at some time in the past?

What do these “marathons” have in common? They’re all contests, events or happenings that were exceptionally long or required great endurance. They are all examples of the general use of the word “marathon.”

Those who have run a marathon, though, know that the word has a special, specific meaning. For runners, a marathon is a running event — usually a road race — with an official distance of 26 miles and 385 yards (often abbreviated to 26.2 miles).

Marathons take their name from the legendary run of Greek soldier Pheidippides, who was a messenger during the Battle of Marathon. As the story goes, Pheidippides was sent from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to tell everyone that the Greeks had defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Legend holds that Pheidippides ran the entire distance (approximately 25 miles) without stopping and exclaimed “We have won!” before collapsing and dying.

The marathon was featured as one of the original modern Olympic events in 1896. Since then, the men’s Olympic marathon has traditionally been the last event, finishing inside the Olympic stadium, often as part of the closing ceremonies.

People often find it odd that a marathon is not a nice round number of miles. The International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) set the standard distance for the marathon in May 1921.

Although the first seven Olympic Games featured marathons of six different distances (all between 24.85 and 26.56 miles), the IAAF settled on 26 miles and 385 yards, which was the distance used at the 1908 London Olympics.

The IAAF probably settled on the distance used during the 1908 Olympics because that race was widely considered to be one of the greatest races ever. It featured a dramatic finish that sparked a worldwide interest in the marathon.

Today, more than 500 marathons are run throughout the world each year. Most participants are recreational runners who do not run to win.

In fact, some are just happy to finish. Most runners simply compete against themselves, trying to beat their own personal best time.

Some runners try to break certain time barriers. For example, recreational first-time runners often try to run a marathon in less than four hours. Competitive runners may try to finish in less than three hours. Others might set a goal of qualifying for a major marathon.

Patrick Makau of Kenya holds the world record time for men at 2 hours 3 minutes and 38 seconds, set in the Berlin Marathon on September 25, 2011. Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain holds the women’s world record at 2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds, set in the London Marathon on April 13, 2003.


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    • Thanks for your comment, Abby/M.C! People train a really long time to be able to run that distance! We bet it feels awesome to cross that finish line! :-)

  1. Wonderopolis,

    The video today was so amazing and heartwarming. We watched it today at school and I was about to burst into tears of joy. It’s incredible how someone who can’t walk or talk can run a marathon. That video makes me want to run in that marathon, but I do not live anywhere close to Boston, and I don’t think I’m old enough, either.

    I can’t wait for tomorrow’s wonder. Does it have anything to do with a boulder, and where they come from?

    • There are lots of marathons (and shorter races) all over the world, Meredith/MC…even some just for kids! We bet you could find a race to train for in your town or city, and we believe in you…we know you would be GREAT!

      Remember to check Wonderopolis to see about tomorrow’s Wonder (we want each new Wonder to be a surprise, even though we like to give a little hint)! Thanks for visiting and commenting today! :-)

  2. I love running. I was on my school’s track and cross country team. I am so excited to see the Summer Olympics. I love going on this site. I always learn so much.

    • We’re really glad you like learning in Wonderopolis, Simone! We do, too! We are SUPER excited about watching the Summer Olympics, as well! There are so many different sports and so many world athletes that will be competing in them. There is definitely something for everyone to cheer about! :-)

    • Hi there, Liam! We’re glad you had a good time exploring this Wonder of the Day® about marathons! We learned a lot and we’re super happy that you did, too! :-)

      • Thanks for sharing your comment with everyone in Wonderopolis today, Mike! We appreciate you stopping by to explore this Wonder of the Day® about hammocks with us! :-)

    • That’s right, Andrew! A marathon is 26 miles. Do you think that you could run that long of a distance, Wonder Friend? Thanks for sharing with us today, and we hope you have a WONDERful day! :-)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • How long is a marathon?
  • Why is it called a marathon?
  • Who holds the world record for the fastest marathon run?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Do you like to run? Cardiovascular exercise, such as running or bike riding, involves repetitive movements that get your heart pumping.

It has many important health benefits. If you’re not a runner today, it doesn’t mean that you can’t become a runner some day or enjoy cardiovascular exercise.

It doesn’t matter if you start slow… the important thing is that you start! Depending on how physically fit you are today, you may be able to run a long distance already, or you may need to start by jogging or walking.

Grab a comfortable pair of tennis shoes and hit the road. Grab a friend, parent or relative to go with you. Exercise is always more fun when you involve others.

Use the time to talk about your day or things that are important to you. Enjoy your time exercising together!

Try to get several hours of cardiovascular exercise each week. If you’d like to become more physically fit and eventually run a marathon one day, you’ll probably want to start with an initial goal of running a shorter race, such as a 5K (a total distance of 5 kilometers or about 3 miles). Check out this neat Couch-to-5K® Running Plan that will help you plot out your goal in easy-to-achieve steps.


Still Wondering

Running a marathon will certainly get your heart pumping. Use Illuminations’ The Beat of Your Heart lesson to learn how to take your pulse, collect and interpret data, make predictions and draw conclusions about exercise’s effect on your heart rate.


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