Tell any runner that a marathon is 26 miles, and you'll be quickly corrected. It's 26.2 miles. Those last 0.2 miles hurt. The 0.2 isn't there because of conversion out of a metric distance. A marathon is 42.195 kilometers.
So I dug around the libraries of Rutgers University to find out. Here's your weekend history lesson.
The first modern marathon was run in 1896 at the first modern Olympics. Much of Europe was in the midst of a Greek revival craze, which meant scholars were studying Greek gods and myths, including that of Pheidippides. Allegedly, he ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news that the Greeks, outnumbered two to one, defeated the Persian army, and was so happy he died on the spot.
His story may be just a myth, one that over the years also changed Pheidippides' job description and name spelling - but it inspired organizers to make the first marathon course from Marathon to Athens.
The first marathon was 40 kilometers, a little under 25 miles, and run by 16 men. Spiridon Louis, who refueled with wine at the half-way point, won in two hours, 58 minutes, 50 seconds. He didn't win a gold medal but a silver chalice, free shaves for life plus a horse and cart for his village.
Five months later, marathoning came to the U.S. On Sept. 26, 30 runners took a train from New York City to Stamford, Conn., and ran 25 miles back for what was technically the first New York marathon.
In April of the following year, the Boston Athletic Association, started as a way to promote physical activity through things like running and bowling, put on its first marathon. Fifteen runners took on a 24.7-mile course that started at the Ashland rail station and ended at the Irvington Street Oval near Copley Square.
In 1904, the U.S. hosted the Olympics in St. Louis. Its marathon was a 40-kilometer race won by Thomas Hicks, who took in egg whites and brandy plus two injections of grain strychnine sulfate (today it's used as a pesticide. Keith Richards claimed it almost killed him.)
The 1908 London Olympics gave us the 26.2 miles by accident. The first course was 25 miles, starting at Windsor Castle and ending at the new Great Stadium, with Queen Alexandra's viewing box set up at the finish line.
But concerns about the race affecting tram lines and then logistical problems getting runners into the stadium to finish in front of the queen lead to the finish being a 385-yard dash instead of a full lap around the track. That brought the total race distance to 26.2 miles.
The race was a duel between Dorando Pietri, an Italian, and Johnny Hayes, an American. When Pietri crossed into the stadium, he fell. Two race officials and the race doctor helped him get back up, but he fell four more times before he crossed the finish line. Hayes came in a half minute behind him but was announced the winner because Pietri had help finishing.
Two months later, Pietri and Hayes ran a re-match in Madison Square Garden. How could anyone judge who was the better runner if they didn't compete at the same distance as the original battle? (Pietri won by half a lap.)
The distance became known as the "London Olympic Distance," and was adopted by the International Association of Athletics Federations in 1921, and then marathons soon after, including New York that same year, and Boston in 1924.
So there you have it. A marathon is 26.2 miles because of an ancient Greek myth and Queen Alexandra. It's not exactly a tidy history, but when is a marathon ever tidy?