© Copyright – 2017 – Athletics Illustrated



We could do a better job of honouring the man who delivered the good news that freedom was won in a battle against the invading Persians at Marathon, Greece, by running the marathon, not the half marathon.

Is the half marathon distance killing the marathon race? The half marathon was a marketer’s idea to get more bucket-listers to pay big money to run a marathon-like event without paying respect to the actual distance; a bastardised version of a historic run. And while we are at it, don’t call the marathon, the “full marathon” – it is simply the marathon.

The marathon has a history; the distance is symbolic and is noteworthy. All those who enjoy the privilege of running freely can thank the Greeks who defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. At the time, democracy was a fledgling concept. The Battle of Marathon was a battle for democracy.

Once the battle was waged and victory was declared, Greek messenger Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news that the Greeks defeated the Persians. He died on the spot; he was the ultimate martyr.

The Greeks introduced the literary forms of lyrical readings, poetry, theater and comedy. During their pursuit of democracy, they developed ideals of freedom from suppression and slavery. The Battle of Marathon was one of, if not, the most important war fought in western culture’s history; the freedom of man. The manifestation of which is carried out on the roads in cities the world over, to pay homage to the Greeks who fought for our freedoms; the original Memorial Day is celebrated in every marathon that is run.

The race was invented specifically for the 1896 Athens Olympic Games Marathon – the first edition of the modern Olympics, as an honour to Pheidippides and the Greeks who fought for our freedoms.

At the time, the distance was 40 kilometres or slightly under 25 miles.

During the 1908 London Olympic Marathon, the distance was lengthened to 26.2 miles.

Queen Alexandra requested for the race to start on the lawns of Windsor Castle and finish in front of the royal box at the Olympic Stadium, which turned out to be the distance of 26 miles, 385 yards (42.195K).

In 1921, the length of the marathon race was standardised to this distance.

Now, no race is a marathon unless it is 42.195 kilometres in length. Any race that is longer is considered an ultra-marathon and any distance shorter is typically named for whatever distance it may be, except for the half-marathon.

To ensure that no runner covers less than 42.195K during a marathon, a certified course measurer, with a specially calibrated Jones Counter must measure a marathon race course several times to 42.195K, plus 1m added for every km of distance run over the shortest possible tangents.

Because of the symbolic nature and history of the marathon, the odd distance can be forgiven, it provides character. But the half-marathon was created simply as a marketing concept; to get more people to participate without having to do the marathon, by calling it a half-marathon. Not a great homage to the symbol of our very freedoms.

It makes much more sense to go with 20K. Like the 5K and the 10K, the number is even and simple to conceptualise, there exists no false glory.

The half marathon is growing in popularity faster than the marathon. In fact, it is the fastest growing distance of all. Some people believe that one does not have to train as much for a half marathon race as they do a marathon. Not true. For the bulk of the training, to have success at either distance runners of all abilities would be better to train for a half marathon the same volume that they train for a marathon, but that is another story for another day.

The events are races, not feats of survival. If one is not prepared to train well, they should not attempt the distance.

Is the half marathon killing the marathon star? Not at the elite level, but certainly at the water cooler it is. For the uninitiated, the half marathon sounds like an accomplishment. Sure it is and can be considered a stepping stone towards the marathon, but that is not what is happening.

A cursory search of some recent results suggests that the half marathon is cannibalising the marathon. During the 2017 Rock ‘n Roll Arizona Marathon 2,349 people took in the marathon, while 10,379 finished the half marathon, the ratio hasn’t changed in four years, in 2013 3,228 finished the marathon, while 13,361 covered the half marathon.  Las Vegas 2016 had 2,605 taking in the marathon and 22,077 running the half, nearly 10 times as many in the shorter event. Prague 2017 had 6,511 and 9,041 respectively. Victoria 2016 saw 1,101 and 2,820 for the respective events.

The marathon should be the marquee race at an event marketed as a marathon. One way to do this is to no longer use the half marathon nomenclature and change the shorter distance run to 20K. A 20K carries less swagger at the watercooler for the bucket lister; perhaps they will try to graduate to the longer distance sooner if all they have is a 20K to complete first. It’s a small token in honour of the Greeks who died fighting for our freedoms, especially Pheidippides, who ran those 25 miles to deliver the good news.