The Marathon is a classical running distance, roughly 40 kilometres long: in most cases 42,195 metres (26 miles, 385 yards) - the awkward distance was fixed for the first time for the 1908 Olympic games in London - as legend has it to ensure a final stretch in front of the Royal Box as well as a starting point at Windsor Castle.
The name commemorates the battle of Marathon in 490 BC; the Athenians and some allies soundly defeated a Persian invasion force who had just come off ships near the small town of Marathon. According to legend, an army messenger ran non-stop to Athens with the happy news and dropped dead immediately after delivering it; this may not be true since the ancient Greeks had horses and, if it is true, he may have taken a shorter but hillier alternate route. However, the length of the race is based on his most likely route.
More than 500 marathon races are held annually, most of them as road races, though the distance can also be pursued cross-country.
There are also a number of ultramarathon races which cover even longer distances. Perhaps the most challenging footrace of all is the Marathon des Sables [dead link], 251 km (156 miles) across part of the Sahara Desert in Morocco.
Places for public marathon races
Many cities host large and prestigious marathons, each attracting top marathoners and huge crowds of non-professional runners.
- Berlin - The Berlin Marathon has been held every year since 1974 and attracts nearly 40,000 runners. It has hosted six men's world records and three women's world records on its mostly-flat course. Races are typically run in the fall.
- Boston - The Boston Marathon has been run every year since 1897 on Patriots' Day, the third Sunday in April.
- New York City
Other cities with large marathons include:
- Istanbul — home of the only marathon in the world that the runners swelter on two continents. Many Istanbul dwellers take the opportunity to walk over the Bosphorus Bridge that gets temporarily closed to vehicular traffic during the marathon (no pedestrians are allowed on the bridge at other times)
Most of the organizers of marathons belong to the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS). Their site has a directory listing an enormous number of races worldwide.
Many people travel for marathons, so lodging selection is important. For major marathons the influx of visitors can overwhelm local lodging options, so plan to book well in advance. Marathons will typically involve shutting down the roads along the course, so transportation to the starting line on race day can be tricky - if you can book a hotel that is close to public transit or near the starting line your marathon experience is likely to be much less stressful.
Particularly if you aren't an experienced marathoner, expect to feel pretty brutalized after completing the course. Most people won't want to spend hours driving or on a plane immediately after putting their body through twenty-six miles of punishment, so booking a hotel for multiple nights - at least the night before and the night after the marathon - is a plan that you are unlikely to regret.
According to legend, the first marathon runner dropped dead just after finishing the run. That story may not be accurate, but certainly a marathon puts considerable strain on the body. No-one should attempt the race, or even serious training for it, without first talking to their doctor.
There are two water-related dangers; dehydration is uncomfortable, debilitating and dangerous, quite definitely not good for you. On the other hand excessive consumption of fluids can lead to hyponatremia, a reduction of sodium levels in the blood that is sometimes fatal for long-distance runners. Wikipedia has some good general advice on the topic, but you need precise advice tailored to your body; consult a doctor with expertise in sports medicine.