Everything You Need to Know about the History of the London Marathon
The London Marathon is one of the World Marathon Majors — a group of the world’s most elite, high-profile marathons that also includes the events in Berlin, Boston, Chicago, New York, and Tokyo. Over a million entrants have completed the London Marathon since it was established more than 40 years ago. These runners have raised more than a billion pounds for charity and created countless tales of human achievement along the way.
In 2023, the London Marathon will take place on April 23. This year will be the first time since 2019 that the event will take place during its usual month. The London Marathon was held in spring from its first year, and in April every year from 1988 to 2019, until the pandemic pushed the event to October in 2020, 2021, and 2022.
For marathon runners and fans, the London Marathon is one of the highlights of the year. Here’s what you should know about it.
When did we start running marathons?
The roots of modern-day marathons lie in a story related by the Greek historian Herodotus. According to his account, in 490 BC, after the Battle of Marathon, an Athenian runner named Pheidippides was sent from the battle back to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. Pheidippides ran the entire distance — about 26 miles — and announced the victory, then promptly collapsed.
Although other accounts variously name the messenger as Thersipus or Eucles, the notion of a hero of the day running an incredible distance ignited the public imagination more than 2,000 years later, when the first modern Olympic Games were being planned in 1896. The organizers wanted to create a headline-capturing event that would celebrate Ancient Greece and popularize the Games, and landed on the idea of a footrace called a “marathon.”
What are the origins of the London Marathon?
In 1979, British track and field athlete and Olympic champion Chris Brasher was inspired to stage a marathon in the city of London after competing in the New York Marathon. Following his retirement from professional sports, the Olympic gold medalist had a successful career as a journalist, working for The Observer newspaper and the BBC. He still retained his passion for running, however.
Brasher traveled to the US in 1979 to compete in the New York Marathon. On his return to the UK, he wrote about the experience in a piece published by The Observer, explaining that to believe the story, the reader must believe “the human race to be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, and achieving the impossible.”
Brasher joined forces with John Disley, a fellow Olympic medalist, and organized the inaugural London Marathon in 1981. Right from the beginning, the event was popular — some 22,000 runners applied to take part in the first year, although this figure had to be capped due to safety concerns. On March 29, 1981, 7,741 runners crossed the first Start Line in Greenwich Park.
It should be noted, however, that the London Marathon was not the first marathon to take place on the streets of the UK capital. That distinction is held by the Polytechnic Marathon, which was staged from 1909 to 1996, and was the first regular event to cover the now-standard marathon length of 26.2 miles.
Who are some famous names in London Marathon history?
The first London Marathon saw 6,255 finishers, led home by Norwegian Inge Simonsen and American Dick Beardsley, who joined hands as they crossed the finish line on a rain-swept Constitution Hill. The duo finished in two hours, 11 minutes, and 48 seconds. In the process, they cemented a friendship that lasted a lifetime.
In the women’s race that year, Joyce Smith broke the British record, crossing the finish line in 2 hours, 29 minutes, and 57 seconds. She triumphed again the following year when Hugh Jones became the event’s first male British winner. The 1982 event made history as the only London Marathon where both male and female races were won by Britons.
Today, Martin Lel (Kenya), Antonio Pinto (Portugal), and Dionicio Cerón (Mexico) hold the record for most men’s victories with three each, while Ingrid Kristiansen (Norway) holds the women’s record with four wins. The men’s course record is 2 hours, 2 minutes, and 37 seconds, achieved by Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) in 2019. Paula Radcliffe (UK) still holds the women’s course record with her 2003 time of 2 hours, 15 minutes, and 25 seconds,
In 1999, Jenny Wood-Allen (UK) set a new record as the oldest woman to complete a marathon. At 87 years old, she finished the London Marathon with a time of 7 hours, 14 minutes, and 46 seconds — a Guinness World Record. She would later walk the course in subsequent years.
Where is the course?
The mostly flat course of the London Marathon starts south of the Thames, in Greenwich Park, and moves through several inner London boroughs before crossing the Thames at Tower Bridge. The route then moves east, circling the Isle of Dogs before turning west to finish on the Mall near Buckingham Palace.
Spectators travel from across the UK (and the world) to watch the London Marathon, and the city’s Underground and streets are therefore very busy. Bottlenecks naturally form around iconic tourist sites like The Mall, Cutty Sark, and Tower Bridge. The River Thames embankment offers a more comfortable spot to watch runners sprint, jog, and trudge by.