The London Marathon

This weekend thousands of runners will test themselves to the full in the annual Flora London Marathon. At 42.195 km, it is a race of endurance. But why 42.195 km? That is tied up in the history of the 1908 London Olympic Games. But why does the United Kingdom press call it a 26 mile 385 yard race and does it matter? For the record, two measurements differ by 1 cm. (Article contributed by Martin Vlietstra)


The Marathon is governed by Rule 240 of The International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) rulebook. (http://www.iaaf.org/mm/Document/imported/42192.pdf). These rules state that state that the marathon must be 42.195 km in length; that for â??events that are longer that 10 km, refreshment stations shall be provided at approximately every 5 kilometresâ??. Furthermore â??The distance in kilometres on the route shall be displayed to all athletesâ??. So how does the London Flora Marathon fare?

The Flora London Marathon route description states â??Every mile is marked by a huge arch across the road. You will definitely not be able to miss them. At each mile marker there will be a clock giving the time elapsed since the start â?¦ Kilometres are marked at 5 km intervalsâ??. The course route can be found at http://www.london-marathon.co.uk/site/content/file/course/marathon_map_2006.pdf. An examination of the course map and of the way in which the course is marked shows that the organizers are paying lip-service to the requirement to use kilometres.

Does it really matter whether the course is marked in miles or in kilometres? Anybody who watched Paula Radcliffe run (she has withdrawn from the 2008 Flora London Marathon due to injury) cannot help but notice that she is forever checking her watch â?? she is obviously monitoring her progress. Since kilometre markers are guaranteed in every race that she runs, it is highly probable that she uses kilometres rather than miles when monitoring her progress. It must be disconcerting having â??usefulâ?? marker posts every 5 km instead of every kilometre (which she would be used to elsewhere). When she ran in the Athens Olympics, she was suffering from a stomach upset and subsequently withdrew towards the end of the race. Anybody who watched her running would have seen how she struggled to the 36 km marker, paused, summoned up her strength and started off again only to retire a few paces later. The British press was undecided as to whether she ran 21 miles or 22 miles â?? none mentioned the huge 36 km marker which was clearly visible to every television viewer in the world.

So is the Flora London Marathon yet another example of the cultural Apartheid that we have in Britain â?? one set of units for the professionals and another for the â??man in the streetâ???

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9 Responses to The London Marathon

  1. Ezra Steinberg says:

    The posting says:

    "The British press was undecided as to whether she ran 21 miles or 22 miles – none mentioned the huge 36 km marker which was clearly visible to every television viewer in the world."

    I have a strong hunch the influence of Imperial road signs is showing its continuing effect here.

    One can only hope that a way can be found to put in place a program to replace existing signs with metric ones (along with Imperial decals until M-Day arrives) so that the UK can present SI only on the roads and motorways in time for the London Olympics.

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  2. Dave Brown says:

    I can never understand the people I know who run: when they talk about shorter races it's always the '10k' (i.e. 10 km) distance they run. But when they talk about a marathon they normally speak in terms of 26 miles. Why do they do this? Surely they know that the marathon is a bit more than 4 times the length of a 10k, so why not use the language that makes that obvious?

    As with most measurement issues, I would suspect that people simply follow what they read in the papers rather than thinking about it for themselves.

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  3. Martin W says:

    'Mileposts' on UK motorways and major A-roads are actually metric, and have been since at least the 1970s.

    The small white posts at the side of the road are placed every 100 metres, and the newer driver location signs, which are currently being installed, are placed at 500 metre intervals. Both show distances in kilometres from the start of the road.

    http://www.highways.gov.uk/knowledge/17088.aspx

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  4. Ezra Steinberg says:

    The same web site has this response to the question about using "kilometres" instead of Imperial units on the driver location signs:

    "For more than 30 years, distance marker posts have been provided at 100 metre intervals along each hard shoulder of motorways. These are used for maintenance purposes (e.g. to enable maintenance contractors to identify exactly where repair works are needed). Also, they show the direction to the nearest motorway emergency phone.

    When a driver uses one of the motorway emergency telephones, the RCC operator knows the precise location of the caller. However, with the increased use of mobile telephones by drivers in an emergency, police may not be able to quickly locate the scene of an incident, as drivers sometimes are not sure of their location. Also, on many all purpose roads, there are no emergency telephones. Therefore, at a number of trial sites, both on motorways and on all purpose roads, driver location signs have been erected by the Highways Agency at regular intervals (e.g. every 500 metres in each direction). These traffic signs use the same motorway referencing system as the distance marker posts, to enable the driver to identify, and the emergency services to rapidly locate, the scene of an incident without any confusion. The signs show the route number, the carriageway identifier and the kilometerage.

    The EU Directive on units of measurement provide for the continuation in use in the UK of imperial units for road traffic signs, speeds and distance measurement, until a date to be fixed by the UK Government. The EU do not specify a deadline for fixing a date and the Government has no plans to change the imperial units still in use.

    The design of the driver location sign was agreed with the Department for Transport in 2003."

    Here is the link (see question 14):

    http://www.highways.gov.uk/business/16041.aspx

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  5. Alex Bailey says:

    It's not just the marathon... we've recently had the "Sainsburys Sport Relief Mile" run and a campaign on Cornflakes packets to encourage a 10 mile cycle ride. Now the Formula 1 season is well under way we also now have the official FIA graphics on screen which show track distances in km, speeds in km/h and this season driver weights in kg, yet the presenters still insist on using miles, mph and stones... while happily using metres to describe short distances!

    We're regularly told over and over by retailers and the media that imperial measures are used because it's what we're used to using on the roads... but it does nothing more than insult our intelligence!

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  6. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Anybody who want to see the detailed results of the Flora London Marathon can do so by visiting http://results-2008.london-marathon.co.uk/. Each runner's progress is shown at 5 km intervals and at the race's midpoint. If the runner had been planning the race using miles, this information is of very little use.

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  7. David M says:

    I'm afraid I have to disagree with Dave Brown's comment that "Surely [everybody knows] that the marathon is a bit more than 4 times the length of a 10k".

    Sadly, while indeed metric measures are the norm for just about every other sporting endeavour, marathons are never referred to in km in this country. I recall the (otherwise fairly metric) Blue Peter happily reciting the "26 miles 385 yards" verbiage, like a mantra, every year throughout my childhood, as if there were some magical quality to those numbers.

    We have plenty of evidence that most people don't cope well with trying to handle two systems, and this is surely just an example of that. With 10 km runs being commonplace, runners are perfectly at home with the metric system, but because marathons are never referred to in metric, it's not surprising that hardly anybody can make the connection nor realise quite the difference between the two.

    This is probably why every year, many amateur runners, well-used to the 10-k, bravely try to attempt a marathon without fully realising the scale involved, and often struggle to complete it. Good on them for making the attempt, but I'm sure that if the marathon were more commonly referred to as a 42 km race, a great many more people would be much more immediately aware of the sheer scale involved, and instead decide to tackle some more of the intermediate events first before attempting the big one!

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  8. Sam says:

    I came across this article by accident as we are organising a charity fun run for martial arts students...

    I often do fun run's that the organisers tell us are 5 or 10 k in length, but out of a severe bad habit I persist in calling them 3 & 6 mile runs... I appreciate that I am in no way a professional runner, I run for charity & to stay in shape for martial arts (which uses the metric system - our shiai-jo is 8m x 8m)... I train by running 3 - 6 miles (depending on the run coming up) around our local park with orienteering markers (set approx 1/2 mile apart although this varies from course to course) and so I find that this helps me...

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  9. Daniel Jackson says:

    If the London Flora Marathon does not follow the rules as far as signage is concerned, then how is it they get validated? It may be too late this year, but would it be in the interest of fairness if a complaint was brought before the IAAF that the London Marathon was flaunting the rules?

    Every Marathon held everywhere in the world should be forced to follow the same rules or they lose their validation. The IAAF may never do anything unless there is a valid complaint.

    This article appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer a few years ago:

    Abeba Tola traveled more than 7,300 miles (11 750 km) from Ethiopia to take part in the women's 10-kilometre portion of the 25th CVS/pharmacy Cleveland Marathon. But it was the fourth mile yesterday that cost her.

    Tola, 25, was running with Jackline Toroni of Kenya at that point, and then Toroni began to pull away. Tola, thinking she was at the 4-kilometer mark instead of the 4-mile mark, did not go with her.

    I wonder if these mistakes are common when marathon runners from metric countries encounter a metric unfriendly atmosphere in the US or the UK.

    Maybe it isn't too late to contact the IAAF and see what can be done to make sure all marathons that will be held this year will comply.

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