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Boston Marathon History

History of the Marathon

THE FIRST BOSTON MARATHON

After experiencing the spirit and majesty of the Olympic Marathon, B.A.A. member and inaugural US Olympic Team Manager John Graham was inspired to organize and conduct a marathon in the Boston area. With the assistance of Boston businessman Herbert H. Holton, various routes were considered, before a measured distance of 24.5 miles from Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland to the Irvington Oval in Boston was eventually selected. On April 19, 1897, John J. McDermott of New York, emerged from a 15-member starting field and captured the first B.A.A. Marathon in 2:55:10, and, in the process, forever secured his name in sports history.

In 1924, the course was lengthened to 26 miles, 385 yards to conform to the Olympic standard, and the starting line was moved west from Ashland to Hopkinton.

THE MARATHON DISTANCE

The 1896 Olympic marathon distance of 24.8 miles was based on the distance run, according to famous Greek legend, in which the Greek foot-soldier Pheidippides was sent from the plains of Marathon to Athens with the news of the astounding victory over a superior Persian army. Exhausted as he approached the leaders of the City of Athens, he staggered and gasped, “Rejoice! We Conquer!” and then collapsed.

The marathon distance was later changed as a result of the 1908 Olympic Games in London. That year, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria wanted the marathon race to begin at Windsor Castle outside the city so that the Royal family could view the start. The distance between the castle and the Olympic Stadium in London proved to be 26 miles. Organizers added extra yards to the finish around a track, 385 to be exact, so the runners would finish in front of the king and queen’s royal box. Every Olympic marathon run since the 1908 Games has been a distance of 26 miles, 385 yards.

ON A MONDAY: THE PATRIOTS' DAY RACE

From 1897-1968, the Boston Marathon was held on Patriots’ Day, April 19, a holiday commemorating the start of the Revolutionary War and recognized only in Massachusetts and Maine. The lone exception was when the 19th fell on Sunday. In those years, the race was held the following day (Monday the 20th). However, in 1969, the holiday was officially moved to the third Monday in April. Since 1969 the race has been held on a Monday. The last non-Monday champion was current Runner’s World editor Amby Burfoot, who posted a time of 2:22:17 on Friday, April 19, 1968.

WOMEN RUN TO THE FRONT

Roberta Gibb was the first woman to run the full Boston Marathon in 1966. Gibb, who did not run with an official race number during any of the three years (1966-68) that she was the first female finisher, hid in the bushes near the start until the race began. In 1967, Katherine Switzer did not clearly identify herself as a female on the race application and was issued a bib number. B.A.A. officials tried unsuccessfully to physically remove Switzer from the race once she was identified as a woman entrant. At the time of Switzer’s run, the Amateur Athletics Union (A.A.U.) had yet to formally accept participation of women in long distance running. When the A.A.U. permitted its sanctioned marathons (including Boston) to allow women entry in the fall of 1971, Nina Kuscsik’s 1972 B.A.A. victory the following spring made her the first official champion. Eight women started that race and all eight finished.

FIRST TO SPONSOR THE WHEELCHAIR DIVISION

The Boston Marathon became the first major marathon to include a wheelchair division competition when it officially recognized Bob Hall in 1975. With a time of two hours, 58 minutes, he collected on a promise by then Race Director Will Cloney that if he finished in less than three hours, he would receive an official B.A.A. Finisher’s Certificate. American wheelchair competitors Jean Driscoll and Jim Knaub helped to further establish and popularize the division.

OLYMPIC CHAMPIONS AT BOSTON

Three-time defending women’s champion Fatuma Roba became the fourth person to win the Olympic Games Marathon and the B.A.A. Boston Marathon when she posted a 2:26:23 to win the 1997 Boston Marathon. Roba, who won the 1996 Olympic Marathon, joined fellow-women’s champions Joan Benoit, who won Boston in 1979 and 1983, before adding the 1984 Olympic Games title; and Rosa Mota (POR), who won a trio of Boston crowns (1987, 1988, and 1990), while adding the 1988 Olympic title. Gelindo Bordin (ITA) is the only male to win the Olympic (1988) and Boston (1990) titles.

Please refer to the Boston Marathon Milestones page of this site for other historical highlights at the Boston Marathon.

B.A.A. Moment 5

1920 - Ashland Start

The Boston Marathon began in Ashland, Massachusetts from 1897 through 1923 then moved to Hopkinton for the 1924 race. The course was lengthened to 26 miles, 385 yards to conform to the Olympic standard, and the starting line was moved west from Ashland to Hopkinton. Since then, the race has started in Hopkinton every year.