Marathon facts

As an alternative to Budget gloom, one of our regular contributors, Martin Vlietstra, provides some topical information about the marathon.

The Flora London Marathon gets under way this weekend.  According to the press, the distance is 26 miles 385 yards, though some papers give the distance as 26.2 miles (actually it should be 26.219 miles).  The official distance according to the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) rules is 42.195 km, though the rule book does recommend that the course be 0.1% longer than the official distance in order to accommodate any errors in measuring the course.  The course officials therefore add an additional 42 metres to the course (What is 0.1% of 26.219 miles, when measured in yards?).

Where did this odd measurement come from?  Contrary to urban legend, it had nothing to do with distance that the messenger Pheidippides ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens in 490 BC.  In the 1896 and 1904 Olympics the marathon was run over a distance of 40 km.  In the 1908 Olympics (which was held in London), it was originally planned that the distance would be 25 miles, but the route was eventually fixed at 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 km). In 1921 this was chosen as the official distance of the marathon.

Rule 240.4 of the IAAF rulebook (Ref 1) states that “The distance in kilometres on the route shall be displayed to all athletes”  The rule book is of course silent about the use of miles.  The result is that in UK and American marathon events, the mile markers are very prominent, but kilometres are often only shown in multiples of five.  Of course, if kilometres were not shown, the course would not comply with IAAF rules, so any “world record” that was set would not be recognised.

One of the innovations of the marathon in recent years is to issue each runner with a transponder which they lace into their shoes.  As they cross the start line, multiples of five kilometers, the halfway point and the finish line their time is recorded.  Thus, in the mass starts runners who might have to wait five minutes before they cross the start line are not penalized.  Apart from checking that nobody cheated, another advantage of this system is that runners can analyse their performance after the race.  Of course, having your times at five kilometre intervals means that prominent mile markers are unnecessary, but that is what the UK press seem to like.  The real athletes, of course, only use the metric markers as these are guaranteed at every marathon course around the world.

Ref 1:

Ref 2:


9 thoughts on “Marathon facts”

  1. What’s with all the jewellery link spam in the RSS feed (and hidden in the post HTML)?

    Reply from the Editors:

    Apologies to Weeble and to any of our other readers who have been inconvenienced by this breach in the security of MetricViews. We have only recently become aware of the problem, and are now working on a solution. 


  2. This reminds me of a story I read on the USMA website,
    What Happened, at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, triple jump champ Melvin Lister was eliminated in the qualifiying round, although he had jumped 17.75 metres in Sacramento CA the previous month, his top jump was only 16.64 metres in Athens.
    why? A kansas city star article quoted Lister as saying “nobody told me they were going to have metric out there. I could not figure out what my mark was” & from 21 August LA times, Lister blamed his problems on trackside officials refusal to allow him to use his measuring tape, which measures in feet & inches, & serves as guidepost for him. He said he was told the tape “might hurt somebody” because of the spiked attachments & was told to use a metric tape, but he did not have one & could not work with the metric tape organizers supplied. “nobody told me I needed one”, he said. “coming down I need my running speed & to trust my approach,”
    Team mate Walte Davis, who advanced with a leap of 16.94metres scoffed at Lister’s excuse “when you’re coming overseas, you’ve got to have metric tape”, he said “mine is in feet & metres, you’ve got to be prepared.
    The fact he did not know can mean the difference between winning or losing , lets hope the marathon runners don’t underestimate the task, I personaly think mile markers should be taken away after all the Olympics are 3 years away it woud get people used to Kilometres?


  3. I watched the end of the London Marathon on TV today, and saw Sammy Wanjiru set a new course record. Near the end of the course there was a big banner proclaiming “only 385 yards to go”. That image would presumably have been broadcast to the entire world as part of their marathon coverage. What a sad thing that says about our nation! “Welcome to Britain; Island of Ignorance. A country that doesn’t even understand how to measure distance.”


  4. I completely agree with you Dave Brown, but if you think thats bad wait till the olympics. If we can’t even use metres during the marathon imagine what the olympics will be like? the only difference it won’t be millions whatching this country it will be 2-3 billion.
    Still at least people in Liberia, Burma & The USA will know that they to are not alone in being behind the rest of the world. But who do you blame? if newspapers or TV news reports using metric, a minority of people will be up in arms mainly due to poor judgement & ignorance, mainly anti-EU, I personally don’t care about other peoples opinions, what I care about is watching this country loose out because it wont change, how can we be closer to the commonwealth as these people want when the commonwealth is all metric & these people are anti-metric. or would there views change on metrication if we were not a part of Europe?


  5. I found the BBC coverage quite good of the Marathon, there was even a time sheet for the men which popped up and displayed the times after ’40 km’. There were lots of ‘800 Metres to Go’ and ‘200 Metres to Go’ signs as well, though I did notice the eponymous 385 yards to go as well.


  6. TV coverage of Formula 1 suffers in a similar manner. Once it switches to the official FIA output all on-screen graphics show information such as track distances, speeds and driver weight/height are shown exclusively in metric however the commentators (including the several ex racing drivers) switch between the two systems, using metres for short distances and miles for longer ones. I laughed during last weeks race at one of the commentators mentioning the “62 mph pit lane speed limit” and following it up with “that’s 100 km/h” as if only to explain why the extra 2 mph!

    I recall a couple of years ago hearing that ITV were providing commentary for Australia and wondered how they felt about the spoken use of miles and mph during the race.


  7. Quote: “The official distance according to the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) rules is 42.195 km, though the rule book does recommend that the course be 0.1% longer than the official distance in order to accommodate any errors in measuring the course. The course officials therefore add an additional 42 metres to the course”

    With this in mind, why not state the official distance at 42.2 km. This will be a simpler number to remember and make the number appear more rounded and acceptable. Since the course is actually 42 m longer, the real length will be 42.24 km no matter how you look at it. When you add the 42 m to 42.195 and 42.2 respectively you get 42.237 and 42.242. When rounded to two decimal places are both 42.24 km.


  8. False.

    The permitted error is between 0% and 0.1%. That’s quite a different thing to a mandatory error of 0.1%.

    See the rule for yourself at the official IAAF website:

    Click to access 42192.pdf

    “The length of the course shall not be less than the official distance
    for the event. In competitions under Rules 1.1(a), (b), (c) and (f), the
    uncertainty in the measurement shall not exceed 0.1% (i.e. 42m for
    the Marathon) …”


  9. I think the philosophy behind the IAAF recommended practice for measuring the course is to eliminate the chance that the actual length may be less than 42 195 m
    For reasons mentioned in the article they can tolerate a small positive error (up to 84 m) but not a negative one because if someone completes the course in a new record time, it may not be a genuine improvement. (In the case of a positive error the achievement of a new record holder would be understated by an unknown amount but they would still get the credit owed to them).
    This does not amount to lengthening the course merely ensuring that it is not shortened.
    If the measuring equipment is known to be reliably accurate to 0.1% then adjusting the length of the course to correspond with readings given by that equipment 0.1% longer than required will ensure the result. The actual distance could end up as 42 195 m if the equipment happens to overread by 0.1%.


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