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13 November 2014

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The London Marathon

You are in: London > Radio > Radio Events > The London Marathon > The history of the London Marathon

London Marathon runners pass the Tower of London

Thousands of runners take part each year

The history of the London Marathon

How a conversation in a London pub and a visit to an American city led to the creation of one of the capital's landmark sporting events.

by Laura MacDonald

On April 26, thousands of runners will be pounding the streets of the capital during the 2009 London Marathon. Elite athletes from around the world, celebrities and members of the public will set off from Greenwich Park in south-east London and make their way through the capital to the finish line at the Mall.

When the marathon began in 1981, it aimed to promote long-distance running, raise money for worthy causes and give people a sense of community. It is now in its 28th year and has raised an estimated £360 million for charities. It even holds a Guinness world record as the single largest annual fund raising event in the world.

The event attracts lots of spectators keen to soak up the atmosphere, with many pubs along the route acting as ‘cheering posts’ for the charity runners. As they watch the hardy competitors pass by, perhaps feeling inspired to pull on their trainers in 2010, they may want to remember that the story of the marathon itself began one night at a pub in Richmond Park.

Inspiration strikes

Chris Brasher was no stranger to the world of athletics. In 1954, he was one of the pacemakers who helped Roger Bannister become the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes. He went on to win a gold medal in the 3000m steeplechase at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

He didn’t have any particular interest in marathon running but was intrigued by the idea after discussing the event while visiting the Dysart Arms in Richmond one night. Eventually, he decide to take part in the famous New York marathon in 1979.

"It's an epic and inspirational event."

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin

When Brasher returned to the UK after the event, he was determined to explore if London could host a similar event that would unify people from all walks of life.

Along with friend John Disley, Brasher secured sponsorship for the event then got the blessing of the Greater London Council, the police and athletics authorities to bring the marathon to the capital.

On 29 March 1981, thousands of people assembled in Greenwich Park and at 9am, began their gruelling 26.2 mile run.

Two hours, 11 minutes and 48 seconds later, runners Dick Beardsley and Inge Simonsen took each other by the hand and became the first competitors to complete the London Marathon, crossing the finish line on Constitution Hill, behind Buckingham Palace.


The event has grown in size and popularity since the first race 28 years ago. In 1981, 20,000 applied to take part – by 2008, that number had risen to 92,000.

London Marathon

Runners in the London Marathon

Organisers have been forced to modify the route several times over the years in order to match the changing face of the capital. When Canary Wharf was undergoing massive redevelopment in the 1980s and 1990s, organisers had to work out a route around the many construction sites on the Isle of Dogs.

Although the starting point of the race has stayed the same, the end point has changed. In 1983, the finish line moved from Constitution Hill to Westminster Bridge, where it stayed until 1993. During repair work on the bridge in 1994, race bosses made the Mall the site of the new finish line and never moved it back.

Marathon facts

  • Paula Radcliffe is the fastest women to complete the course, taking 2 hours, 15 minutes and 25 seconds in 2003. American Khalid Khannouchi is the fastest man, finishing in 2 hours, five minutes and 38 seconds in 2002.
  • In 2008, 167 runners celebrated their birthday on race day.
  • Last year, race organisers gave out 40,000 foil blankets, 1,250 portable loos and 700,000 bottles of water.

The 2005 marathon saw another big change, when marathon bosses decided to divert runners away from the cobbles surrounding the Tower of London. Now, competitors run on a flat surface.

The future

Chris Brasher, the man responsible for bringing the marathon to London, passed away in 2003 but six years after his death, the Marathon is still going strong.

Next year, Virgin will take over from Flora as the event’s official sponsor. The company has announced that it hopes runners will raise £250 million money for good causes during its five-year sponsorship of the event.

Sir Richard Branson said: “It's an epic and inspirational event and raises a fantastic amount of money for great causes. It's the single biggest fundraising day on the planet and we want to make it even bigger.”

last updated: 16/03/2009 at 17:18
created: 16/03/2009

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