Some 1500 years ago, the Greek soldier Pheidippides ran 25 miles from Marathon, Greece to Athens to deliver the news that they had bested the Persians—then promptly collapsed. Since then, countless runners have attempted the feat. Fun fact: The official distance of 26.2 miles was first run at the 1908 London Olympics, when, according to some accounts, Queen Alexandra requested the 26-mile course be extended 385 yards so the royal children could watch the start from their nursery. Read on for some of the most memorable moments from the history of the marathon.
1. A HEROIC FINISH
The final yards of that 1908 Olympics race proved difficult for the lead runner, Italian pastry chef Dorando Pietri. Challenged by the hot and humid July day, he turned the wrong way as he entered the stadium for the final lap, then reversed course and struggled to stay on his feet. (News accounts said he fell five times.) He finished first, but since race officials had to help him to his feet, he was disqualified. Still, Queen Alexandra was so inspired by his bravery, she rewarded him with a gold cup.
2. A MAN COMES IN FIRST PLACE—IN BARE FEET
An Ethiopian bodyguard toed the starting line at the 1960 Rome Olympics in brand new shoes. The fresh kicks gave him blisters, so he ditched them—then went on to win the gold medal and set a world record. Asked about his decision to run barefoot he said simply, “It’s much more comfortable.”
3. A WOMAN BREAKS INTO BOSTON
Women were not permitted to tackle the 26.2-mile challenge until the Boston Marathon officially began allowing them to enter in 1972. But five years earlier, one woman snuck into the race by registering with her initials. About four miles in, an official noticed the interloper (she was wearing lipstick), but her boyfriend shoved them away. She was able to finish in roughly 4 hours, 20 minutes.
4. AN AMATEUR BEATS THE PROS
Lining up at the start of the 1969 race from Marathon to Athens: an amateur runner and gas fitter. He wore thin, rubber-soled canvas shoes and bested everyone with a speedy time of 2 hours, 11 minutes and 7 seconds. His record remained unbeaten in Greece for 35 years.
5. AN UNBELIEVABLY QUICK TIME
One woman beat all the others at the Boston race in 1980—until it was determined that she’d jumped into the pack near the end. Not long after, officials learned that her 1979 win in New York was also rigged; she hopped on the subway for part of the course!
6. A 4-DAY RACE
In 1986 a Vietnam vet who stepped on a mortar mine during the war became the first person without legs to complete the New York City Marathon. Using only his arms to push him along, he finished in 4 days. He later went on to “run” across America on his hands. It took him 3 years, 8 months and 6 days to complete the coast-to-coast journey.
7. A WRONG TURN MADE RIGHT
At the New York race in 1994, two male competitors from Mexico were neck-and-neck, until one veered off course just a half mile from the finish line. Realizing his mistake, he turned course, retraced his steps and closed the approximately 40-yard gap for the win.
8. A LAST PLACE WINNER
A New York woman, afflicted with multiple sclerosis and diabetes, has completed 25 New York City Marathons, and finished last in all of them. In 2000, she proudly set a world record for the longest marathon time in the history of women’s running: 33 hours, 9 minutes. “The race belongs not only to the swift and strong,” she has said, “but to those who keep on running.”
9. A COSTUMED COMPETITOR
A onetime professional soccer goalie and leukemia survivor has made it his mission to run marathons for charity in elaborate costumes, including a full suit of armor, a 9-foot robot outfit and an Indian Jones costume, complete with 350-pound boulder. In 2002, he broke the record for slowest time—5 days, 8 hours—when he wore a 130-pound diving suit. The outfit is now on display at a London museum.
10. A RECORD IS SET
At the 2003 London marathon, a British professional distance runner set the world record for women. Her time of 2 hours, 15 minutes, 25 seconds is largely considered unbeatable. The men’s record—a blazing 2 hours, 2 minutes, 57 seconds—was set by a Kenyan runner at the Berlin Marathon in 2014.
11. AN UNORTHODOX TRAINING PLAN
When 33 miners were trapped underground in Chile for 69 days in 2010, one whiled away the time by running 3 to 6 miles daily in his mining boots. His story caught the attention of New York City Marathon officials and he was invited to run the race (in sneakers!), just three and a half weeks after he was freed.
12. A CENTENARIAN VICTOR
A London man who took up running at the age of 89 became the first centenarian to finish a marathon when he crossed the line in Toronto in 2011. “I just wanted to break that bloody record,” he said. That same year a 92-year-old cancer survivor, running in San Diego, became the oldest woman to complete the distance.
13. A CITY COMES BACK STRONGER
Though bombs near the finish of the 2013 Boston Marathon killed three people and injured hundreds, runners didn’t stay away from the 2014 race. Some 36,000 registered to participate—the second largest group ever in the history of the 119-year-old race—and 1 million-plus spectators lined the course, double the amount who typically turn out.
14. A STRONG DISPLAY OF SPORTSMANSHIP
At a 2015 event in Singapore, where professionals compete for medals, the lead runner realized the 11 other competitors had taken the wrong path—and dramatically slowed his pace. He finished in eighth, with no regrets, saying he didn’t feel comfortable taking advantage of the situation.
15. AN OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD RACE
A mission kept one British astronaut from completing the 2016 London Marathon, so he did it from space. Using a treadmill on the International Space Station (and wearing a harness that substituted for the pull of gravity) he finished the distance in 3 hours, 35 minutes, 21 seconds—beating the only other astronaut to attempt the feat by 49 minutes.