How the Marathon Got its Name: An Origin Rooted in Battle and Myth

Last updated on January 25th, 2023 at 12:16 am

When one thinks of a marathon, one likely imagines a race run by many people, with bystanders on the sidelines armed with encouragement, towels, and water bottles. 

They likely imagine numbers plastered across fronts and a distinct finish line that the winner would break through, resulting in a loud chorus of excited cheers, where each participant carries months of training on their backs. 

Or, they might even imagine a large banner spelling out the words of a charity cause, all the runners gathered together with the shared goal of doing good and bringing about positive change. 

If this is what you have imagined, you would not be wrong – however, there is much more to the story that needs to be considered. Did you know the marathon got its name following specific events? And that these events, though carrying truth and thus accepted by many, may be rooted in myth? 

To learn more about the ancient history and legends attached to the marathon and its evolution over time, continue reading ahead.

Battle of Marathon

Pheidippides and the Battle of Marathon

Let’s set the scene – it is 490 BCE, and from the plains of Marathon, a professional runner and messenger named Pheidippides has just run over 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the great Greek city of Athens. 

The Battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians has just concluded, and Pheidippides has come bearing news: upon his arrival, he announces, “all may rejoice! Victory is ours!” before promptly falling in a heap to the floors, dead. 

The plausibility of this tale, of course, is up for debate.

Other versions of this myth involve the defeat of the Athenians to the Persian army at the Battle of Marathon – a defeat so terrible and dire that not only were the proud Athenians moving to set fire to their city but were also planning to kill their women and children. 

In this version, Pheidippides was not bearing a message of glory but was instead sent with a warning to the Spartans of what was to come – death, destruction, and the downfall of the proud Greeks.

However, according to the Greek historian Herodotus – who is known today as the Father of History and the author of The Histories – Pheidippides’ journey was a little different from what is recounted above.

Fifty years after the historic Battle of Marathon, Herodotus stated that though Pheidippides did come from Marathon – “marathon” is the Greek word for a flowering plant by the name of fennel, which grew in abundance in the area.

He did not come after the battle but was sent before the Persian invasion hit the ground. Rather than a messenger of triumph and victory, he was sent as a call to arms, with those back at Marathon hoping to receive aid from the Spartan army. 

Unfortunately, the Spartans declined this urgent request, marking the purpose of Pheidippides’ journey as a failure. It is unknown if this young messenger returned to Marathon with the answer he received.

Still, it should be noted that the Battle of Marathon did result in Athenian victory despite their army being heavily outnumbered by the Persians – it is estimated that the Athenian army consisted of 10,000 soldiers. At the same time, the Persians arrived at Marathon Bay with an army of 25,000. 

Still, regardless of whether Pheidippides returned, the distance he supposedly ran between the two cities was remarkable. Thus, it went down in history as something we still see in practice today (though the “marathons” people run today have shifted and evolved). 

So impactful was this legend of Pheidippides that 2,400 years later, people still commemorated him, as can be seen in Robert Browning’s poem: 

“Run, Pheidippides, run and race, reach Sparta for aid! /

 Persia has come, we are here, where is She?” Your command I obeyed /

 Ran and raced: like stubble, some field which a fire runs through /

 Was the space between city and city: two days, two nights did I burn /

 Over the hills, under the dales, down pits and up peaks.”

The rugged and rough terrain that Pheidippides traveled across in his journey from Marathon to Athens was demanding and unforgiving, possibly resulting in this courageous messenger’s death. For it, he etched himself into history as the first man to ever run what was coined as a marathon.

The Olympics and the Beginnings of the Marathon

The Olympics as we know them today differs from their beginnings in Ancient Greece, dating as far back as 776 BCE in Olympia. 

Like the modern-day Olympics, these ancient games were held every four years and were widely celebrated. In fact, the Greeks were so proud and eager to partake in these games that even the threat of invasion or war from other countries was not enough to deter or delay them from being held. 

Only men were allowed to partake in these games – it did not matter if the participant was of royal blood or the working class, as long as they were free men and of Greek citizenship.

The majority of Olympians, though, were soldiers. Contrarily, women were not only forbidden from participating but could not even attend in the audience (which, in part, could have been because all Olympians competed completely naked and because of the very violent nature of the games). 

When looking at marathons, in particular, this is something that stayed in effect until recently, when the Boston Marathon of 1972 officially recognized women as participants. The Boston Marathon is perhaps the most famous example of a marathon today, as it draws in participants worldwide.

To win the Boston Marathon is no small feat, so the official entry and inclusion of women was a huge step for international marathons and marathon runners.

 One year later, in 1973, the first all-women marathon was held in the village of Waldniel, West Germany. Then, in 1984, the marathon was introduced as part of the official women’s Olympics program. 

Returning to the ancient games that began in Olympia, however, one may wonder when the marathon became an official part of the agenda – and the truth is, the marathon’s debut as part of the Olympics did not come about until the first modern-day version of the games, which was held in Athens in 1896. 

Prior to this, the ancient games did feature running sports and games, but these were held in the form of sprints. The first 13 Olympic games, in fact, only featured one type of running game – this was the stadion, or “stade,” which was a sprint measuring approximately 192 meters on a straight track.

 However, with the 1896 Athens Olympics, a Greek water carrier named Spyridon Louis – more commonly referred to as Spyros Louis – was the first man to win the marathon race at the Olympic games. The approximate distance that he ran was reported to be 25 miles. 

Over the years, the distance that was run during the marathon was varied depending on location and the circuit used; it was not until the Olympic Games of 1908, when the race began at Windsor Castle, that the distance of a marathon was standardized to be 42, 195 meters – or 26 miles and 385 yards – in length.

Considering Pheidippides and his 25-mile journey, which was perhaps fatal, this standardized distance can be seen as one more nod in his direction. 

The Evolution of the Marathon

Time has allowed for our definition of a marathon to shift and change. What started with a messenger hailing from an epic and horrific battle became something that regular people worldwide put months of training and dedication into completing. 

As such a coveted race, the International Association of Athletics Federation makes a note of and publishes world records. It can be seen that the world records have decreased to demonstrate times of slightly more than two hours to complete.

The man who holds the record for the fastest marathon is from Kenya – Eliud Kipchoge, in Berlin 2018, held a finish time of two hours, one minute, and thirty-nine seconds. 

Brigid Kosgei, also of Kenya, holds the women’s marathon record for completing the 2019 Chicago marathon with a timing of two hours, fourteen minutes, and four seconds.

From the first modern-day Olympics held in Athens in 1896 to the Olympics that continue to be held today, the marathon is something many tune into. 

Even outside of the Olympics, marathons are events that many people have jotted down on their bucket lists and are viewed as much more than just a race. Both today and in Pheidippides’ time, these events are markers of extreme dedication, mental willpower, and human endurance of both body and mind. 



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