How it works
The longest running race on the Olympic programme, the marathon covers 26 miles 385 yards (42.195km). A road race, at major events it has historically finished inside the main stadium, although there have been city centre finishes at several recent international championships.
The event is named after the legendary 26-mile run made by a Greek soldier called Philippedes (also known as Pheidippides) from the scene of the battle of Marathon to Athens, where he announced the defeat of the invading Persians. His mission completed, he promptly died of exhaustion after having apparently also run 150 miles back from Sparta the day before.
The organisers of the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, devised the marathon race over 40km to celebrate the achievements of Ancient Greece.
The distance then was extended to the imperial measurement of 26 miles at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, and increased another 385 yards when the starting line was pulled back so it could be seen by the children in the Royal Nursery at Windsor and still finish in front of Queen Alexandra at the White City Stadium in west London. This distance was standardised at 26 miles 385 yards (42.195km) in 1921.
Did you know
It was quickly discovered that USA's Fred Lorz, who crossed the line first at the 1904 Olympics, had cheated by flagging down a car and riding 11 miles as a passenger. He was disqualified and the victory was awarded to his compatriot Thomas Hicks, who (narrowly) survived the rigours of a race run in temperatures reaching 39 degrees centigrade thanks to a combination of brandy and strychnine.
Kenya's Abel Kirui successfully defended his world title at the 2011 IAAF World Championships to join the select ranks of men who have won twice on the global stage: Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila (1960 & 1964 Olympic Games), East Germany's Waldemar Cierpinski (1976 & 1980 Olympic Games), Spain's Abel Anton (1997 & 1999 IAAF World Championships), Ethiopia's Gezahegn Abera (2000 Olympic Games & 2001 IAAF World Championships) and Morocco's Jaouad Gharib (2003 & 2005 IAAF World Championships).
A member of the Imperial Bodyguard, Bekele was a last-minute addition to the Ethiopian team but caused a sensation by running barefoot through the streets of Rome and winning gold, the first sub-Saharan African to do so, at the 1960 Olympic Games. Four years later he retained the title, this time wearing shoes. On both occasions he clocked world best times. He was inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame in 2012.
After a successful track and cross country career, the British runner moved up to the marathon in 2002 and set a scintillating world record of 2:15:25 at the 2003 London Marathon. She also won the 2005 world title and triumphed in a number of other big city marathons in New York and Chicago. Only an Olympic medal has eluded her.