Racing through the History of the Boston Marathon

By David Horn

In 490 B.C., the Greeks defeated a large Persian force at Marathon, in southeastern Greece. The Greek commander, eager to have the news of his great victory sent to Athens, asked a young warrior to carry the message. Naturally, the runner, Pheidippides, asked how long the distance was. He was told, "Almost exactly one marathon that is, (somewhat anachronistically) 26 miles and 385 yards."

"Can I have that in metric?"

"It is 42.195 kilometers."

Pheidippides ran, not realizing that the lack of availability of a horse on this now historic occasion would result in years of training and hours of agony for hundreds of thousands of people.

At the time of the first marathon (from Marathon), the Olympic Games had been held in Olympia every four years for almost three hundred years. Pheidippides checked with several bystanders and learned that the marathon was not yet one of the approved contests at the Olympics, so he was on his own for rules and ethics.

It would not be appropriate in this somewhat light-hearted essay to describe the horribly tragic end of The First Run. The Athenians, however, rejoiced in the victory.

Fast forward to 1896, when the Greeks decided to revive the Olympic Games, which had been shut down more than a thousand years earlier (in the seventh century, the emperor Justinian shut down the Olympic Games because they were "pagan" rather than Christian). They invited contestants from many countries, and the contests were held in a new stadium in Athens. In that stadium was the finish line for a competitive run from Marathon.


The American team included at least one athlete with (later) Boston College connections. James Brendan Connolly had been accepted to Harvard College but asked permission to postpone his matriculation so he could participate in the new Olympic Games. Harvard said come now or never. Never was the answer, and Connolly won the first contest - the triple jump - and thus was the first medalist since the seventh century, itself a record. (Like many Olympians, Connolly pursued a literary career, and was awarded an honorary degree by BC in 1952.)

Bostonians returning from the fun and games of the Olympics decided to put on their own marathon, measured the standard 26 miles & change from downtown Boston and had their first contest the following spring. Patriots Day, then scrupulously observed on April 19th in conformity with the account in Longfellow's poem, was already a state holiday and was chosen for the marathon with characteristic indifference to the vagaries of April weather.

On April 19, 1897 the marathoners ran the first American marathon: a crude route map, no guides, few signs, very few onlookers, and no police to block traffic or to protect cars from the runners.


There were no Boston College students on the Heights at that time - the college did not move to Chestnut Hill until March 1913. Scholars who learnedly discuss the many reasons for the migration of the sons-of-the-Irish-immigrants school from the lows of the South End to the heights of Chestnut Hill might consider as one motivating factor the eagerness of students to view the annual Boston Marathon earlier in the race to help the runners. Arriving in March 1913, members of the BC community would have been able to cheer on and to help the runners in April of that year.

My favorite story of a BC student helping a runner occurred in 2006. A woman from Hopkinton was stumbling as she passed some of the college students, and one of the freshmen talked to her, gave her some water, encouraged her - and then accompanied her for the rest of the marathon. Along the way he asked onlookers to cheer for her, and all this attention cheered her and she did finish. Student and runner were separated near the finish line, but she later called BC and an APB located the modern Samaritan.


There is a history of the marathon on the Boston Athletic Association website.

Boston Daily Globe; Dec 12, 1896. The announcement of the planned marathon by the BAA (i.e. the first Boston Marathon).

Boston Daily Globe; Apr 20, 1897. The pre and post marathon coverage for the first Boston Marathon

Boston Daily Globe; Apr 20, 1898. Coverage of the 2nd Boston Marathon

Enfranchisement and Citizenship: Addresses and Papers by Edward L. Pierce, 1896
O'Neill Microforms Microfiche Z1236 .L5 LAC

Brehaut, Ellerton James, 1897-1985 Collector. (Ellerton J. Brehaut Bostoniana Collection)
Burns Archives Manuscripts

The Marathon: an American Fixation Since 1972 by Gerald T. Harvey
O'Neill Microforms Theses

Boston: a Chronological & Documentary History, 1602-1970 by George J. Lankevich.
(American Cities Chronology Series)
Burns Stacks Unit Three F73.3 .L273 1974 BOSTON

The Many Voices of Boston: a Historical Anthology, 1630-1975 by Howard Mumford Jones and Bessie Zaban Jones
Burns Stacks Unit Three F73.3 .J66 1975 BOSTON

Young at Heart: the Story of Johnny Kelley, Boston's Marathon Man by Frederick Lewis
Burns Stacks Unit Three GV1061.15 .K43 L48 1992 BOSTON

Boston Marathon: the History of the World's Premier Running Event by Tom Derderian
O'Neill Stacks GV1065.22.B67 D47 1994

Boston: a Century of Running by Hal Higdon
O'Neill Stacks GV1065.22.B67 H54 1995

Boston Marathon: the First Century of the World's Premier Running Event by Tom Derderian
O'Neill Stacks GV1065.22.B67 D46 1996

The Long Run of Myles Mayberry by Alfred Alcorn
O'Neill Stacks PS3551.L29 L66 1999

Going the Distance: Trials and Tribulations by George C. Caner, 2000
Burns Stacks Unit Three 08-000012120 BOSTON

The Rock, the Curse, and the Hub: a Random History of Boston Sports by Randy Roberts
O'Neill Stacks GV584.5 .B6 R63 2005

David Horn, Head Librarian, Archives & Manuscripts, Burns Library