‘No limits’: how the marathon was overtaken in sprint to stretch horizons

<span>Thousands of runners cross Tower Bridge during the 2023 London Marathon.</span><span>Photograph: Vuk Valcic/Alamy</span>
Thousands of runners cross Tower Bridge during the 2023 London Marathon.Photograph: Vuk Valcic/Alamy

The Olympic marathon held 120 years ago saw 32 people start, 14 finish, the winner disqualified for spending most of the race in a car, and another competitor undergo emergency surgery for the damage caused by inhaling dust thrown up by the cars and bicycles that accompanied the athletes around the outskirts of St Louis.

“When the Games are held in 1908 I do not think that the marathon will be included in the program,” said James Sullivan of the Amateur Athletic Union, the event’s organiser. “I personally am opposed to it and it is indefensible on any ground but historic. A 25-mile run is asking too much of human endurance. In sending some 30 men or more into an endurance test as keen and terrible as the marathon run, an awful chance is taken.”

Last year 48,634 people completed the London Marathon; this year’s race takes place on Sunday and 65,725 have successfully applied for a place.

But when Sullivan spoke of human endurance, he was referring only to men. Even a century ago there was no women’s athletics at the Olympics at all, with the first women’s Olympic marathon held as recently as 1984.

The first athletic events for women were held in 1928, when some entrants made the mistake of looking tired at the end of the 800m. “The winner’s performance was completely marred from the spectators’ point of view by the extreme distress shown by the other women,” the Guardian reported. “By the end of the contest several were lying prostrate on the ground, and it was some time before they were fit to move. The athletic experts were shocked.”

The Olympics promptly stopped women from running any further than 200m for more than three decades. In 1964 Dale Greig became the first British woman to run an official marathon, in the Isle of Wight. Just to be safe, she was followed around the course by an ambulance. This year 28,726 women have had entries accepted for the London Marathon.

In a short period of time a terrific change has taken place. A hundred years ago running 26.2 miles had been attempted by just a handful of women and was considered beyond the imaginations of most men (or white men, anyway: the relative athletic prowess of Native Americans led to the popular, 480-mile, seven-day Indian Marathons, precursors of modern ultras, in 1927 and 1928).

Since then there has been a sprint to stretch horizons and test potential. Earlier this month Russ Cook finished running 9,941 miles from one tip of Africa to the other in under a year and an average of over 28 miles a day, saying he felt “a bit tired”. Last year Candice Burt ran at least 50km for 200 consecutive days, at the end of it declaring that “physically I could continue, I think for a very long time”.

For modern athletes the story of Pheidippides, the Greek courier who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persian army and promptly collapsed and died, feels more distant than any finishing line.

“I just remember doing it and feeling super comfortable. I remember being on the roads and the space, and I liked the monotony and repetitive nature of it, and I enjoyed the challenge,” says Jess Piasecki, the fourth-fastest woman in British marathon history, on completing the distance for the first time in 2019.

“Once you’ve done one, the mentality of achieving that distance, it becomes a lot more realistic. Now I feel fine doing a 24-mile run almost weekly. I think everything’s evolved, particularly the research needed for better training. Not only at the elite level – programmes are readily available, you could download one off the internet tomorrow if you wanted one. There’ve also been changes in sport in general, because there’s been more research into the benefits of physical activity, and people want to challenge themselves. There’s a whole host of things that have contributed.”

That is not to say the distance is not a tremendous physical challenge. Piasecki’s career has been disrupted by injuries, including one diagnosis of compression fractures in seven places in her spine which led to her losing 3cm in height. “A lot of athletes do get injured on and off. I think we’re always on that fine red line and it’s hard to find that balance, and sometimes you get stuck on the wrong side,” she says.

“For myself, when I was developing my body perhaps didn’t develop fully, so when I was into my mid-20s I was asking my body to do things I wasn’t quite ready to do. But I don’t dwell on the negative side of injuries. You could get bogged down on thinking: ‘Why me?’ I like to take the bull by the horns, focus on me, and make sure I’ve got everything in place to achieve whatever my next goal is.”

Last month Jasmin Paris became the first woman to complete the notorious, 100-mile Barkley Marathons, having also been the first woman to win the 268-mile Montane Spine, held along the Pennine Way in the bitterest depths of winter, in 2019. She has never run a standard marathon, though obviously the distance holds no fear for her.

“I do like trying new things so I might give it a go one day,” she says. “But I don’t really like running on the road. I don’t find the same thrill of adrenaline and joy as I do when running in the hills. I always enjoyed long races more because it meant more time in the hills – that’s the whole point of it for me. I find with short races, I enjoy the adrenaline rush and the thrill, but it’s over really quickly. I enjoy the journey.”

Given Paris’s achievements perhaps it is no surprise that Sullivan’s idea of “asking too much of human endurance” is the one thing she considers impossible. “I don’t feel there’s a distance where your body says: ‘That’s not possible any more.’ I honestly think you can just keep going,” she says.

“I would say there is no limit. The limit is getting injured, but I think apart from that it’s a case of just putting the fuel in. The body’s a bit like an engine: just fuel it and it keeps going.”