26.2 is one of the most recognizable numbers in sports. It is also a curious number. The length of the marathon race is the only distance in track that is still measured in English units. Yards have become meters. The mile is now the 1500. But the marathon remains 26 miles, 385 yards. Why this peculiar distance? Explanations for the marathon’s length are varied and wrapped in myth. The first marathon race, held at the 1896 Athens Olympics, presumably retraced the route that Pheidippides ran from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens—a distance of 40 kilometers, or just under 25 miles. Subsequent marathon races ranged from roughly 25 to well over 26 miles, depending on the whims of organizers. The distance of 26.2 miles was first established at the 1908 London Olympics. But even the setting of that odd length has several explanations. The one story I’ve often repeated is that the 385 yards were necessary to bring the finish line to the front of the Queen’s box at the Olympic stadium. But now, after reading David Davis’ book, Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012), I know that the royal intervention in London is just as legendary as Pheidippides’ run to announce the Athenians’ victory.
The plotting of the now-standard marathon distance is just one of the stories David tells in his fascinating book. At the center of the book is the meeting of three runners at the London Games: Tom Longboat, the celebrated Onondaga runner from Ontario who entered the race as the favorite; the unheralded Irish-American Johnny Hayes; and Italian runner Dorando Pietri, who was determined to improve on his performance in the previous Olympics. David weaves the biographies of the three runners into a history of the early Olympics and marathon racing in Europe and North America. Runners will be stunned by his accounts of these early races, which included doses of liquor served at refreshment stations and marathons run entirely indoors. And even those who are winded by a jog across the lawn will find much to enjoy in David’s book. If you are planning to watch the Olympics that begin next week, your appreciation of London 2012 will be enhanced by looking back at this picture of the spectacle and scandal of London 1908.