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The marathon footrace of 26.2 miles emerged from the modern Olympics, but has evolved into city festivals fed by commerce, competitiveness, and individualism. Although talented athletes run marathons for prize money or as Olympic qualifiers, marathons also serve as popular recreation and spectacles. Unlike most other athletic contests, in the marathon, professionals and amateurs compete in the same event. Tracing its roots to the nation's early years, the marathon progressed along with industrialization from class-based and ethnic rivalry to mass and segmented markets. Over time, the marathon's meaning as an athletic event has shifted along with technology, social change, and leisure trends.

In the antebellum era, long-distance footraces of varying distances proved to be one of the most popular spectator sports. Featuring prize money, tippling, and betting, the races drew large crowds and often focused on interracial or international competition (and sometimes included interspecies competition, including men versus horses). Traditional Highland games sponsored by the nation's Caledonian Clubs charged admission and offered purses for long-distance footraces. Caledonian Clubs not only inspired the first collegiate track competition in the 1860s, but also the exclusive New York Athletic Club's founding. A venue for cross country, track, and field competition among middle and upper-class men, the club spawned many other status-conscious athletic clubs that sought to regain a sense of manliness lost in white-collar work.

Until the late nineteenth century, competitive long-distance runs varied in length and did not use the term "marathon." The first modern Olympics in 1896 instituted the marathon as a symbolic link between the ancient and modern Olympics. Initially set at 24.8 miles (40 kilometers), the modern footrace recalled an incident in 490 b.c. when an Athenian ran to Sparta with news of victory at Marathon. The Olympic marathon, publicized by an aggressive modern press corps, gave long-distance running value and legitimacy as both an athletic and spectator event. A prestigious New York athletic club, the Knickerbocker, sponsored the first United States marathon, a twenty-five-mile run from Stamford, Connecticut, to the Bronx just months after the Olympics ended. As in other early marathons, trained cross-country runners comprised the field. Although the New York run did not resurface for another decade, Boston launched a 24.7-mile marathon the following year that has endured as the oldest continuous American marathon. (Not until 1912 was the official marathon distance of 26 miles, 385 yards established by the International Amateur Athletic Federation [IAAF], which advises the International Olympic Committee.) By 1905 Chicago and St. Louis hosted marathons, and San Francisco and Detroit began marathons during the World War I era. But marathon running continued to be centered in the East, and attempts elsewhere often soon faded, only to be revived again years later.

The Twentieth Century

In its first few decades after the turn of the twentieth century, the American marathon displayed both order and democracy that characterized the sport later. The earliest marathons were controlled by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), a New York governing body for athletic clubs founded in 1888, that welcomed all athletic clubs regardless of class or size. Establishing a system of rules and record keeping, the AAU, by 1909, had issued Marathon Running, a booklet that included training techniques, rules, and the history of American marathons. Yet despite their AAU influence and absorption in physical vigor, the middle- and upper-classes never dominated marathons. Ethnic groups founded their own athletic clubs in New York and Boston, sometimes within settlement houses or factories, and embraced the marathon as inexpensive but meaningful competition. Entire neighborhoods often turned out to cheer ethnic runners, who metaphorically acted out the immigrant's long journey, struggle, and eventual success in the United States.

A proliferation of marathons in the post-World War I era resulted from surging patriotism as well as a 1925 call by the AAU for a national marathon championship. The 1920s nativist mood generated new patriotic celebrations in many cities, which frequently included marathons. Ironically, while the marathon helped indoctrinate ethnic groups into the American culture of commercialism and competitiveness, it also provided an opportunity for expression of ethnic pride. Indeed, when the Great Depression reduced the number of marathons, ethnic neighborhood track clubs and industrial teams helped sustain the sport.

During the post-World War II era, social change transformed the marathon from working-class athletics to middle-class pastime. Ethnic consciousness faded as ethnic groups melded into the American middle class. At the same time, the Cold War called attention to the physical condition of Americans, and American and Soviet rivalry in the Olympics boosted the marathon's visibility. As Americans moved to the suburbs, they searched for ways to fulfill President John F. Kennedy's call to under-take vigorous exercise. Bland corporate work, along with an abundance of high-calorie convenience food, contradicted by expectations of a trim physique, drove many Americans to the uncomplicated fitness routine of jogging. Middle- and upper-class women took to the roads in large numbers during the 1970s, prompted not only by cultural standards but by feminism's emphasis on well being and individual effort. Their drive to test the limits of equality, along with American Frank Shorter's 1972 Olympic victory in the marathon, inspired many men and women joggers to advance to marathons.

By the mid-1980s cities across the nation hosted hundreds of marathons driven by both big business and nonprofit organizations. The Road Runner's Club of America (RRCA), founded in 1957, sponsored "fun runs" as well as marathons that gave runners of every ability a feeling of accomplishment. Surveys suggesting that runners were high-income, white-collar professionals encouraged sponsorship from corporate advertisers. As athletic shoe and apparel companies turned out ever more expensive products, corporate advertising turned running togs into vogue fashion, further increasing interest in running. In the mid-1970s, the New York City marathon led the way for luring corporate dollars. Officials hired Olympic medallists who not only drew big sponsors but also upper- and middle-class entrants, media attention, crowds, and hearty support from municipal officials who eyed the marathon as a profitable and unifying city festival.

Participants in the marathon boom no longer reflected talents of the past's trained amateur. Marathons welcomed nonathletic, nontalented individuals who viewed the marathon as an opportunity for achievement and recognition otherwise denied them. Men and women with no athletic potential could now compete with seeded professionals and share in the media glow. Regardless of their finishing time, regardless of whether they combined running with walking to finish, all who crossed the finish line received medals, certificates, and T-shirts that conferred elite status. Among this elite, the marathon provided sociability in spite of its isolating activity and self-absorbing rewards.

The Twenty-First Century

By the turn of the twenty-first century, the number of marathons had decreased compared to the previous decades, in part a reflection of waning interest in exercise. Moreover, when the marathon's popularity reduced its cachet, serious competitors moved up to the triathlon, an endurance event requiring 112 miles of biking and a two-mile swim in addition to the marathon. Yet trends pointed to even greater segmentation of the marathon market. Permutations of the triathlon sprouted, including shorter distances and other, less demanding events such as canoeing. In addition, signs of a second boom of runners prepared to undertake marathons emerged late in the 1990s. Unlike the small group that first launched interest in the marathon, participants in this more recent movement included a broader range of society, which is more reflective of the marathon's history in the United States.

See also: Olympics, Running and Jogging, Triathlons


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James Weeks