Simon Keller

In 1921, the International Amateur Athletic Federation set the marathon distance at 42.195 kilometres. No one really knows why.

Originally, the agreed length of the marathon was “a very long way”. The first Olympic marathon in 1896, following the route run by the ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides, was about 40km. In the decades following, marathon distances were determined by convenience. 

The distance of 42.195km first appeared in the fourth modern Olympics, in London in 1908. According to legend, officials were swayed by the wishes of Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII. She wanted the race to start on the lawn of Windsor Castle so the royal children could watch from their playroom, and to finish in front of the royal box in the stadium. 

The distance did not immediately catch on. The 1912 Olympic marathon was 40.2km. In 1920, it was 42.75km. From 1897 to 1924, the Boston Marathon was 24.5 miles (39.4km). The IAAF had no clear reason to look back to 1908 and the whims of Queen Alexandra.

Now, of course, the marathon is the marathon. 42.195 km may as well be set in stone. But it didn’t have to be that way. Thinking back to that IAAF meeting (I guess there was a meeting?) in 1921, would a different decision have made the world better? 

The 40km marathon

Someone must have noticed that 42.195 is not exactly a round number. (Neither is the imperial equivalent: 26 miles and 385 yards). Surely some thought was given to the close and user-friendly option of 40km. 

If the marathon were 40km, I suppose that life would be much the same. But it would be easier to calculate our splits. And in good news for people who like to run in circles, the marathon would be 100 laps of a track. 

Some big races might have turned out differently. Rod Dixon did not take the lead in the 1983 New York Marathon until the 41st kilometre. Maybe if the marathon were 40km, Allison Roe would still stand as New Zealand’s only New York champion. 

If the 2017 Melbourne Marathon had been only 40km, it might have saved me two toilet stops. 

The 50km marathon

Some sadistic IAAF delegate might have advocated an even longer distance. If we are in the business of causing pain, they might have argued, why not go for the half-century? 

I have never run 50km, but from all I hear, it is not just like running 42.195km and then continuing for a bit. It presents a different kind of challenge. 

If the marathon were 50km, then perhaps elite marathoners would be a different kind of athlete. They might look less like 10,000 metre runners who have stepped up to the top of their range and more like today’s ultra runners: tougher and stockier, built for grinding out miles rather than pure silky speed.

The 50km distance would likely put the marathon out of reach for the everyday jogger, at least if their goal is to run the whole way. Runners who aim simply to complete the marathon might plan regular food stops and walking breaks. 

I don’t think that the 50km distance would lead to a corresponding lengthening of training runs. For most of us, a 40km weekly long run would be too much. The standard long training run would still be around 30km, and the increase in distance on race-day would be massive. 

I can confidently say that if 50km was the standard marathon distance, I still would never have run 50km.

The 35km marathon

There have been some sensible people in the IAAF, or so it is sometimes alleged, and one of them might have pointed out that 42.195km is an awfully long way, and really, what’s the need? Wouldn’t 35km be enough?

Running 35km is much less damaging than running 42.195km. It is possible to cover 35km in a training run and still come back the next week. 

At 35km, it would be possible to run several hard marathons a year. If you had a bad day or the weather was horrible for your target race, you could try again a few weeks later.

I don’t think that there would be a big change at the elite level. Pretty much all great 42.195km runners would also be great 35km runners. Races might be more tactical, and would certainly be more intense. We might see more elite runners try to break the field early, and it would be that much more difficult to have a bad patch yet stay in the race.

The 35km marathon would be a healthier prospect for the everyday runner. Running 35km is still an impressive achievement, but it would not leave the novice marathoner so physically and psychologically destroyed. 

When I finished my first marathon, very, very slowly, I must have looked grotesque and miserable. I remember promising myself in the closing miles that I would never do this again. I eventually came back to running and to the marathon distance, but many do not. For many, one marathon is all it takes to prove that they can do it, and that they hate it.

Perhaps if the marathon were 35km, novice marathon runners would be more likely to stay in the sport and to try to run a bit faster next time. Maybe the experience would lead more people to find distance running, as a lifestyle choice, a little less bizarre. 

The more I think about it, the more attractive the distance of 35km seems. I could certainly get used to it. If I somehow had the ability to influence the IAAF circa 1921, then I would make the case for the 35km marathon.