The London Marathon: a history

By Guest Blogger | 5 Minute Read

Like all the best ideas, it began in a pub, the Dysart Arms in Richmond to be precise. It was the home of Ranelagh Harriers running club. Over pints of bitter one night in the late 70s, the talk turned to the New York Marathon, which was then quite unlike any of the low-key, low-turnout marathons in Britain, where hardy runners trudged around country lanes to the bemusement of a few cows and a handful of loyal supporters.

In contrast, the New York City marathon was a different beast altogether – cheering crowds, iconic landmarks and a sea of runners who were taking part for the thrill of being there.

Among the members listening in were Chris Brasher and John Disley. Both were distinguished athletes. Brasher was pacer to Roger Bannister when he broke the four minute mile in 1953 and subsequently won a gold medal in the 3,000 metre steeplechase in the 1956 Olympics. Disley was also a distinguished steeplechase athlete and fell runner, who won a Bronze at Helsinki and later set a record for the Welsh 3,000ers. 

There was only one thing to do – go and see for themselves. The pair duly signed up for New York and returned exhilarated by the experience, enthusing about the potential of bringing a marathon to London.

Brasher got the ball rolling by writing an article for The Observer. “To believe this story you must believe that the human race can be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible,” the article began.  “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.”

Brasher ended the article by wondering whether London could stage such a festival? “We have the course, a magnificent course, but do we have the heart and hospitality to welcome the world?”

There were a few hurdles to get it over the line, not least persuading some hesitant Police chiefs. But in the finest traditions of the day, they were brought round with the help of a generous lunch in which the wine flowed. 

The first London Marathon took place on 29 March 1981. Nearly 20,000 applied but only 7,747 runners took to the start line. There were 6,255 finishers, led by the American Dick Beardsley and Norwegian Inge Simonsen who crossed the line together in driving rain in a time of 2:11:48.  Joyce Smith, a 43-year-old mother of two, won the women’s race in 2:29:57, then a British record and the third fastest time ever by a woman. (Women comprised fewer than 5 percent of entrants in the first year.)

The race was a massive hit from the start. The following year more than 90,000 runners applied for one of 18,000 slots available. Since then, well over a million runners have crossed the line – 40,255 people finished in 2018.

Although it’s not considered a fast marathon course like Berlin, London has nonetheless seen six world records set, one in the men’s race (2:05:38 in 2002) and five in the women’s, with the most notable – perhaps of all time – being Paula Radcliffe still unbroken 2003 performance. 

On April 13th of that year, she crossed the line in the astounding time of 2:15:25, knocking two minutes off her previous World Record, itself an additional minute faster than the 2:18:47 set by Catherine Ndereba in 2001. It’s still considered one of the greatest distance running performances of all time and one of the greatest marathons. To put it in perspective, the three time London Marathon winner Mary Keitany’s fastest time, set in 2017, is 2:17:01.

Wheelchairs were first introduced in 1983 and London has helped to pioneer the popular appeal of para sports among the public. One of the athletes to become a household name is Tanni Grey-Thompson, who won the London Marathon six times between 1992 and 2002. Meanwhile in the men’s, the unstoppable David Weir shows no sign of slowing down having notched eight victories since his first in 2002, including 2017 and 2018.

Today, the London Marathon course record stands at 2:03:05. This year all eyes will once again be on Mo Farah and whether he can improve on his third place last year and bring an end to Eliud Kipchoge’s winning streak. 

But as Brasher envisioned at the beginning, the race belongs not to the elites but to the great masses, sharing and suffering together along the 26.2 mile course. If you’re lucky enough to have secured an entry and you’re worried that you haven’t done enough training, spare a thought for Dave Bedford, who holds the unlikely distinction of being the least prepared runner to take on the course.

The former 10,000m world record holder (and later London Marathon race director) was challenged to enter the first race for a £250 bet while on a heavy night out on the eve of the race.

“Through my rose-tinted beer goggles, the bet seemed too good to refuse,” he once told the Guardian. “I began my buildup in earnest, turning to a more healthy beverage. I downed four piña coladas. The club closed at 2am but because the clocks went forward to mark the start of British summer time I therefore turned my attention to carb-loading and headed to my local curry house.”

He managed to sleep for 15 minutes before being woken to catch the train to London. It was around the 3 hour mark that the effects of the king prawn curry, pints of lager and piña coladas made themselves known. “I started to walk, keeping my legs unnaturally apart in order to reduce the chaffing effect,” Bedford later recalled. He eventually crossed the line 45 minutes later. When he made it back home to Luton, he went straight to bed and didn’t emerge for two days. For anyone completing the marathon for the first time, that part will at least be familiar.



Struggling to hold a 4:38 minute mile pace required to break Eliud Kipchoge's 2:01:39 world marathon record? You could always try one of the Fancy Dress records up for grabs. Last year 34 new records were set in London, including the fastest marathon dressed as a whoopee cushion and the fastest marathon on stilts. Here are some of the ones to beat:

2:36:28 Fastest marathon dressed a film character

2:55:52 Fastest marathon in a wedding dress (male)

3:05:27 Fastest marathon dressed as Star Wars character 

3:16:36 Fastest marathon dressed in a full body animal costume


Plus, if you'd like to fully dial your hydration strategy in by finding out how much sodium you lose in your sweat, you can book in for an Advanced Sweat Test at the Expo.

Or, if you miss us, check out our blog on how to stay hydrated during a marathon as well as our tips for mastering drinking at the water stations on route.

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