Whether you are a fitness enthusiast or a couch potato, it is hard not to admire people who compete in marathons and recognise the almost epic nature of their achievements. A marathon is a 42.195 km road race that has been part of the modern Olympic Games since their beginning, in 1896. It is inspired by the glorious legend of the Greek messenger Pheidippides, who was sent to Athens to announce that the Persian army had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon. As the story goes, he ran the over 40 kilometres from the battlefield to the Athenian assembly without stopping, reported the victory, and then collapsed and died. This is why the organisers of the first edition of the modern Olympics chose this event to increase the popularity of the Games.
After an American athlete won the marathon at the 1908 Olympics, interest in long-distance running started to develop in the US. The first amateur competitions were organised during the Christmas period and on other important public holidays, giving rise to the so-called “marathon mania”, a phenomenon that has grown to incredible proportions, as shown by the fact that in 1980 around 140,000 runners competed in marathons in the US, compared to over 550,000 in 2014.
Nowadays, the total number of marathons run yearly around the world has reached 800. Events are held in every corner of the globe, including Antarctica and the North Pole, also thanks to the help offered by modern technologies such as GPS, and some races are renowned for their historical significance or unusual setting.
The Boston Marathon is the oldest in the world, as its first edition was held in 1897, and it is probably the most famous road racing event globally, with over 30,000 participants and half a million spectators. The competition takes place on the third Monday in April, i.e. Patriots’ Day, which marked the beginning of the American Revolution. The date chosen is no coincidence, as the organisers wanted to draw a connection between their fight for freedom and democracy and the feats of the Ancient Greeks. It started out as a local competition but its fame soon grew and it now attracts participants from far and wide. Until the 1980s, no registration fee was required and no cash prizes were given, just a simple wreath of olive branches. Another remarkable feature of this historic marathon is the fact that some runners participate wearing colourful and sometimes rather bulky costumes. Unfortunately, it is also known for the two bombs set along the course in 2013, which killed three spectators and injured an additional 250 people.
One of the most peculiar marathon races is certainly the Midnight Sun Marathon held in the Norwegian city of Tromsø, 350 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, in the month of June every year. The start and the finishing line are in the city centre and the over 4,000 participants come from dozens of countries, as far from Scandinavia as South America and New Zealand. The success of this event is due to several factors, among which the stunning beauty of the course, which runs along the water and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the friendliness of the locals, who cheer the participants and offer them snacks while having picnics along the route, as well as the fact that here the sun doesn’t set for over two months during the spell-binding Arctic summer.
Lastly, a marathon not for the faint-hearted. On the third Sunday in May, over 2,500 runners from around 50 nations take on one of the toughest, most demanding courses in the world along one of mankind’s most remarkable monuments, i.e. the Great Wall of China. Three events are available: a full marathon, a half marathon, and an 8.5 km run. The challenges of this race lie mostly in the weather conditions, with temperatures likely to reach 40°C, and the actual course, which includes thousands of steps. The steps vary greatly in height and are often reduced to rubble, with loose stones and missing parts, as they follow the contour of the ground, constantly climbing up and going down. This is why you should think about participating in the epic Great Wall Marathon only if you have previous experience and have trained extensively in harsh conditions.