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.