The Polytechnic Marathon in London was held annually between 1909 and 1996 in and around London and it was the first regular 26 mile marathon. 8 world bests were achieved in these marathons including the first authenticated time under 2 hours, 20 minutes. It began after the 1908 Olympics in London and was organised by the Polytechnic Harriers, the athletics club of the Regent Street Polytechnic. Changes in the city on the marathon’s route as well as competition from other large-scale marathons abroad caused it to decline in the 1970s.

The current marathon held in London was founded by John Disley and the late Chris Brasher, who apparently came up with the idea in a pub in Richmond. Many runners were impressed with the 1978 New York City Marathon and so Brasher and Disley entered the race in 1979 and were then convinced a similar event should be held in London. Brasher wrote an article for The Observer called ‘The World’s Most Human Race’, beginning:

“To believe this story you must believe that the human race can be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible. Last Sunday, 11,532 men and women from 40 countries in the world, assisted by over a million people, laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival the world has seen.”

After a long period of discussion of the pros and cons of holding the event, deciding how to chart the course, persuading the police that closing the roads would not cripple the city and acquiring Gillette as the first sponsor, the first race was held on 29 March 1981.

As the event was given charitable status, it’s aims were stated as:

  • To improve the overall standard and status of British marathon running by providing a fast course and strong international competition.
  • To show mankind that, on occasions, they can be united.
  • To raise money for sporting and recreational facilities in London.
  • To help boost London’s tourism.
  • To prove that ‘Britain is best’ when it comes to organising major events.
  • To have fun, and provide some happiness and sense of achievement in a troubled world.

7,747 people ran the race (out of 20,000 who wanted to). American Dick Beardsley and Norwegian Inge Simonsen won together at Constitution Hill. Thousands watched the race and it was a huge success. It has increased in popularity ever since and in total, 746,635 runners have completed the 1981-2009 London Marathon. An estimated £500 million has been raised by the event since it began. For more information go to the official site here.