The London Marathon is a great London occasion that showcases the city at its best. The first one was run in 1981 and today’s will be the 36th. During that time the event has grown from a novel experiment in a city in decline to a mass participation celebration of a booming one. There is also an older history of marathons in the capital. Here are a few milestones.
1908 London hosted the Olympics for the first time and a marathon was run on a course that began outside the metropolis at Windsor Castle, proceeded through Eton, Slough, Langley, Uxbridge, Ickenham, Ruislip, Harrow, Sudbury, Wembley and Willesden before finishing at a packed White City Stadium in Shepherd’s Bush. It was the first Olympic marathon run over what from then on became the standard distance of 26 miles and 385 yards. The finishing line tape was broken by Italian Dorando Pietri, but he was disqualified because he was helped to his feet by officials after collapsing inside the stadium no less than five times. Victory was awarded to American Johnny Hayes, who had followed Pietri home.
1909-1972 The Polytechnic Marathon, inspired by the Olympic race, also used Windsor Castle as a starting point and ended in West London. It was originally organised by the Polytechnic Harriers, the athletics club of the London Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster). Its first finishing point was Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge before gravitating to White City in 1933 and then, from 1938, switching to the Harriers’ own, then brand new, stadium in Chiswick. From 1973 “the Poly” confined itself to the Windsor area before fading away towards the end of the last century. It was last run in 1996.
1981 Two British Olympic medalists, John Disley and Chris Brasher created the London Marathon. Brasher had been inspired by the New York Marathon, which he saw as magnificent, unifying “folk festival” in a city stricken with strife and division. The inaugural London Marathon was an early example of a partnership between London regional government – in those days the Greater London Council – and a commercial sponsor, in the form of Gillette. London’s population was at a post-war low of 6.6 million and although more than 22,000 people applied to take part in the race, the Metropolitan Police restricted the number accepted to around 7,500. Norwegian Inge Simonsen and American Dick Beardsley and were joint winners crossing the finish line on Constitution Hill hand-in-hand.
1982 The finish line was moved to Westminster Bridge. The race has always started from the grasslands of Blackheath and Greenwich Park.
1995 The finish line was moved to the Mall, in front of Buckingham Palace where it has been ever since.
2005 With numbers of participants now routinely topping 30,000, the route was slightly changed to remove a narrow, slow, partly cobbled section past St Katherine’s Docks and the Tower of London, which could be slippery and became very congested. This resulted in the ensuing loop around the Isle of Dogs and through Canary Wharf being run anti-clockwise instead of clockwise as previously.
2009 Virgin were announced as the marathon’s new sponsors from 2010, and company boss Richard Branson responded by soliciting suggestions for a new route to help make the race “more fun and glamorous”. His wheeze never caught on, meaning the marathon continues to grace humbler neighbourhoods like Charlton, Woolwich and Rotherhithe as well as the Embankment and Tower Bridge. And that’s the way it should be.
2017 Now called the Virgin Money London Marathon, the race is a London institution. Close to a quarter of a million people apply to take part, of whom up to 40,000 do. More than £770m are raised for charity. Long may it thrive.