Almost half a million Americans ran a marathon in 2012, according to Running USA's "Annual Marathon Report." For each of the 93 marathons that took place all over the country in 2012 there were a 1000 finishers per marathon. However, marathon running did not always carry the mass appeal it enjoys today. Marathon running became an Olympic sport in the 1896 Athens Olympics and slowly morphed into the grueling sport runners know and love today.
Most marathon runners can instantly recite the exact length of a marathon -- 26.2 miles, or 42 kilometers. National and international governing bodies of sport, such as USA Track and Field or the International Association of Athletics Federations, closely measure and monitor course distances to preserve the integrity of national and world records, but measuring marathon courses was not always an exact science. The first modern Olympic marathon course in 1896 covered only 24.8 miles -- and, according to the Boston Athletic Association, the first Boston Marathon measured only 24.5 miles. Legendary marathon runner Alberto Salazar's potential world-record time set in the 1981 New York City Marathon was disqualified because organizers designed a course 148 meters too short.
Though the number of marathon runners participating in races around the world is booming, many major marathons began humbly with barely a fraction of their current number of entrants. According to Lovett's account in "Olympic Marathon," only 17 runners toed the starting line at the first Olympic marathon in 1896 -- two more runners, in fact, than entered the first Boston Marathon the following year, according to the Boston Athletic Association. The New York City Marathon originated in 1970, when 127 runners paid an entry fee of $1 to run several loops through Central Park. When the New York Road Runners adopted a course winding through all five boroughs in 1976, a field of 2,090 runners entered the race.
Young to Old
Among the thousands of marathon runners who line race courses each year are runners young and old, as well as athletes of all ages in between. In the 1977 New York City Marathon, 8-year-old Wesley Paul finished the race in three hours, 37 seconds, becoming the youngest runner to ever finish the race, according to an article in the Huffington Post. Older runners have also proved their mettle in the marathon, as three runners age 80 and older competed in the 2011 Boston Marathon. Two-time Boston Marathon winner John A. Kelley ran the race 61 times and crossed the finish line 58 times, including his final triumph in 1992 at age 84, according to the Boston Athletic Association.
Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia set the world record for running a marathon when he ran the 2008 Berlin Marathon in two hours, three minutes and 59 seconds, according to International Association for Athletics Federations records. However, Gebrselassie did not actually run the fastest marathon time ever recorded. Geoffrey Mutai achieved that feat during the 2011 Boston Marathon, clocking two hours, three minutes and two seconds. However, the IAAF refused to recognize Mutai's time as a world record because it was run a non-qualifying course. The Boston Marathon course yields a net loss in elevation and is a point-to-point course, allowing for more tailwind than a looping course, which the IAAF prefers. So while the course, competition and crowd support of the Boston Marathon are legendary for producing fast times, world-class athletes cannot claim their Boston Marathon results as world records. As of 2014, the new world record holder is Wilson Kipsang who ran the Berlin Marathon in September 2013 in two hours, three minutes and 23 seconds.
- Running USA: 2013 Annual Marathon Report
- Olympic Marathon; Charlie Lovett
- Boston Athletic Association: Boston Marathon History: Boston Marathon Facts
- Boston Athletic Association: Boston Marathon History: Participation
- The Huffington Post: NYC Marathon Facts: 7 Things You Didn't Know About the New York City Marathon
- IAAF.org: News for Geoffrey Kiprono Mutai
- USA Track and Field New England: Road Race Course Certification: How Do Courses Measure Up?
- NYC Parks: The History of the New York City Marathon
- STV Edinburgh: Centenarian Runner Trains Up Ahead of the Tenth Marathons Festival