Marathon myth

With the London Marathon being run today, it is timely to remember the metric origins of the marathon, and to puncture the myth that it is a race measured in imperial units.

No lesser an authority than the New York Times ran a story this weekend which opened with the sentence “At the Summer Olympics, the marathon will be the only foot race measured by the standard system instead of the metric system,” and describes the course length as “the precise distance of 26 miles 385 yards.” Sadly for the newspaper, the marathon course will be neither measured by the “standard” (or to British ears imperial) system, nor will it be precisely 26 miles and 385 yards.   The rules of the marathon are quite clear; it is a race of 42,195 metres, and must show kilometre marker posts for runners for any race times to stand as official times. More precisely, race officials must allow one metre per kilometre to take account of any measuring inaccuracies, as the races are normally run on streets rather than tracks, and so the racing line could be slightly inaccurate. There are mentions of neither miles nor yards in the race rules.   So how long is 42,195 metres? In the imperial system, it would be 26 miles, 385 yards and 0.4752 inches. So if any organiser were to measure a race using the imperial system, and measure precisely 26 miles 385 yards as advocated by the New York Times, it would fall short of 42,195 metres, and would not be a marathon.

12 thoughts on “Marathon myth”

  1. Since the meter (metre) is the standard of measurement, 42195 m is exactly 42195 m. The question is how long is 26 mi 385 yd.

    26 mi x 1609.344 m/mi + 385 yd x 0.9144 m/yd = 42194.988 m
    Thus, it leaves the runner exactly 12 mm short of the finish line.

    Of course reality is that:
    *Due to short course correction factor of 1 m/km, the course is really about 42237 m long and is merely named 42195 m.
    *In 1908 when the course was really 26 mi 385 yd, such sophistication didn’t exist, so the modern course is quite a bit longer.

    The length of the marathon is specified in IAAF Rule 240, with other details immediately following, if anyone needs a reference.


  2. Kilopascal has pointed out some further economies with the truth in the NY Times article:

    ‘Did you look closely at the article and notice something quite sneaky? Look carefully at this quote:

    “People are used to running” 26.2 miles, Makau said. “They run it like it is a short distance. Longer would be better.”

    You will notice that the 26.2 miles is NOT includes in the quote marks, indicating that he never spoke those words. Yet, someone reading the comment might not catch that and assume he actually did say 26.2 miles. So what did he say? I’d guess he said 42.2 km.

    In the paragraph before this, it says:

    Then he suggested the race should be lengthened to 30 miles to make it more exciting. Patrick Makau of Kenya, the world-record holder in 2:03:38, had a similar idea.

    Notice he is not quoted as saying 30 miles. He may have stated 50 km, but the reporter didn’t want to give the impression these world class runners are speaking metric, so they change their words and don’t quote them directly.

    There are actually 50 and 100 km ultramarathons.

    From Wikipedia:

    In reference to the Berlin Marathon of 2011-09-25, he is quoted directly as saying:

    Speaking after the race, Makau said “In the morning my body was not good but after I started the race, it started reacting very well. I started thinking about the record”[14] and “At 32 km I thought I could win the race and even break the world record. It was hard [over] the last 10 kilometres”.[15]

    He actually said 32 km. The quote came from this metric-only article:

    It seems the New York Times reporter knew well that the champion runners are speaking metric, so in reality his claim that the marathon is not metric is a lie and not just ignorance on his part.’

    It is a relief to know that we are not alone in the UK in having newspapers that knowingly misreport in order to push their anti-metric agenda.


  3. The Associated Press in particular and the American media in general “hate” the metric system and convert everything to US Customary, even when the metric value is “official.”

    Mr. Longman is NYT’s lead Olympic correspondent so you may be sure we will hear all about miles in the marathon and feet and inches in the field events (jumping and throwing) even though these units are not actually used in the Olympics. We must make do with approximate conversions as our media can not admit the truth: the world is metric.

    For the field events, it is best to ignore the newspaper, mute the announcer, and bookmark official Olympic results to know how the athlete really performed.

    NBC provides the TV coverage and it is extremely confusing to hear the announcer babbling in feet and inches while the field is marked in meters, official graphics are in meters and NBC graphics are feet and inches.


  4. This reporter, who calls US Customary the ‘standard system’, has certainly never heard about the Mendenhall Order of 1893 and the agreement between English speaking nations on measuring units of 1959!


  5. I have to say that I think it is a bit pedantic to try and discredit the imperial version of the marathon distance on the basis of the minute discrepancy quoted in the article. It is purely academic and not detectable by any practical means that race officials might use.

    However, that reference to miles and yards as being “standard” is worth challenging. The true standard is the SI. The yard is now defined with reference to the metre. It doesn’t have an independant physical definition of its own.

    Whatever NYT readers might think of the metric system they should be left in no doubt that the US is dependant upon it for its metrology.


  6. The USA is a country I admire in many ways, but when I read that the American media (and by extension large sections of the American population) ‘hate’ the metric system I begin to wonder what their problem actually is. Do they know in their heart of hearts that the metric system is far better than their ‘standard’ system but cannot bring themselves to admit it because metric has its origins in other parts of the world and not in America? If they had invented it themselves would they still be shunning it? Or would that make it OK because it was ‘American’? What units of measurement are the plans for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site in?


  7. @philh

    What is not pedantic is that the IAAF rules REQUIRE it to be measured in metric to be a sanctioned race. That is also a USATF requirement, as it is the national body in the US which represents the IAAF.
    (I understand that both US and UK marathons have supplemental Imperial marking on the course. That is not disallowed. However, it is required that the course measurer work in metric, and that minimal metric marking be on the course.) Therefore, the NYT author’s claim that the course is MEASURED in Imperial can only be described as a lie. (I suppose it could be a mistake, but they are supposed to have fact-checkers and this is pretty easy to fact-check.)

    Both require a guarenteed minimum length of 42195 m, with a target 0.1% long (42237.195 m) and a maximum of 0.2% long (42279.39 m). Certainly a lot of decimal dust given the tolerance range. But sacrificing a little tolerance and rounding sensibly, I could reasonably describe it as 42195 – 42279 m, with a target of 42237 m, or as 42237 m ± 42 m, and be fully compliant with slightly reduced tolerance.

    If I insist on departing from the measurement directions, I must assume any conversion error and deduct it from the tolerancing by rounding “specward.” Minimums must round up, and maximums down; targets can round centrally. It is always best to convert exactly, then round sensibly. In yards,
    Minimum: 46145.01312 yd
    Target: 46191.15814 yd
    Maximum: 46237.30315 yd
    The minimum is very close to 46145 yd, but I can not round it down. I can choose my rounding precision, but to whole yards, I can only choose 46146 yd. Similarly 46191 yd for the target, and 46237 yd for the max. An Imperial measurer is still violating explicit instructions, but within these limits, his violation would be undetectable and harmless. Noting that 26 mi is 45760 yd, I can reduce all of the above to miles and yards. A description of 26 mi 386 yd does not dishonor the actual specification, 26 mi 385 yd does.

    Now, if I really wanted to be pedantic, I would note in 1908 when the marathon was really supposed to have been 26 mi 385 yd:
    *You used a different sized yard (documented in 1895 W&M Act), not the international yard of 0.9144 m, and the discrepancy to the 42.195 km value adopted by the Olympics, 1921, would have been a little greater.
    *The original 26 mi 385 yd apparently wasn’t measured accurately at all as remeasurement of just the first mile showed an error of over 100 yd (per NYT). There apparently has never been a 26 mi 385 yd marathon. Assorted lengths were used until the 42.195 km value was adopted.


  8. All the advice given to ruunners on how to prepare for the race is given in miles, yet the results are published in kilometres. Am I the only one who is missing something?


  9. @Martin,

    I think you are failing to account for British and American obstinacy. In both cases, they make it only as metric as they have to for IAAF certification, and as Imperial as they can get away with (since supplemental indication is not prohibited).

    Course must be in measured in metric, 42.195 km, and offer 5 km metric splits. Then they are free to make it as Imperial as desired within those bounds and they do (Boston, New York, etc are similar).


  10. @ Jake
    I saw a program about the rebuilding of the WTC in New York on Discovery Channel some time ago. The commentator said that its height will be 1776 feet, a reminder of the year of the declaration of independence.


  11. The running boom in the U.K. is a fantastic phenomena. But I find the British addiction to the mile extremely frustrating. Despite learning kilometres at school, brits pick up the use of the mile from common usage reinforced by road signs. So runners frequently talk in miles and measure their pace in minutes per mile. Marathons and half marathons are marked in miles although where split times are measured electronically these are often at 5K, 10k, 20k, half marathon, 40k. 5 and 10k races are usually marked in kilometres but articles on running frequently talk about (for example) the third mile of a 5K.
    Having to have conversations about distances and paces I don’t understand is one of the things that puts me off joining a running club. If anyone knows a metric running club let me know.


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