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October 4, 2012

Book traces marathon's history

There was a time when running a marathon was considered a feat beyond most people’s imaginations. Today, running the 26.2 miles is considered so routine that one man actually runs a marathon every day just for kicks. Other than suffering from “Get a Life” syndrome, the guy represents a definitive change in an event that was once equated with climbing Mt. Everest.

Most people probably don’t know the origins of the marathon. Those aware of Greek history have heard the story of Pheidippides (or a fellow courier) who supposedly ran the 24 miles from Marathon to Athens to let the denizens know that the Greeks had conquered the Persians. The legend goes that the courier shouted “Rejoice, we conquer!” and dropped dead.

Jump ahead about 2,000 years and we have a French baron, Pierre de Coubertin, coming up with the idea of the modern Olympics to be based on the ancient Games held every four years in Greece. Someone came up with the bright idea of having a long-distance race re-creating the courier’s run from Marathon to Athens. Appropriately, a Greek won the first marathon.

The invention of the marathon ignited an international interest in long distance running although the 24+ mile distance was still mainly seen at the Olympics and the Boston Marathon, which started in 1897.

There were a handful of individuals that began to make names for themselves as “world class” distance runners.

One issue that would be comical today was the practice long-distance runners used for improving stamina. Not drinking water, wearing warm clothing on hot days, and getting a “pick-me-up” from whiskey or brandy were all in vogue at the turn of the 20th century. The only thing that paralleled what goes on today was the use of performance enhancing drugs.

The place where the marathon really came of age and gained immortality was at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, England. Several factors joined together to cause this sensation including the competition between several renowned competitors and a controversial finish. The 1908 Olympic race was also where the marathon standardized its distance at 26 miles, 385 yards.

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