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History of the London Marathon

The London Marathon has become an annual, inspiring and colourful fixture in the world’s sporting calendar since the inaugural race on 29 March 1981.

More than a million people have completed the course, over a billion pounds has been raised for charity and there have been countless amazing tales of human achievement.

Inspired by the New York City Marathon, which was established in 1970, Olympic steeplechase medallists Chris Brasher and John Disley were determined that the London Marathon would showcase the very best of the capital. They also declared the event would help people ‘to have fun, and provide some happiness and sense of achievement in a troubled world’.

The event captivated people’s imagination from the off, with more than 22,000 runners applying to take part in the first race. However, the original capacity was capped due to safety reasons, so there were just 7,741 runners who crossed the first-ever Start Line in Greenwich Park. A mere fraction of the 45,000-plus runners that we see in the modern versions of the event.

Home hand-in-hand

There were 6,255 finishers – led home by American Dick Beardsley and Norwegian Inge Simonsen, who crossed the Finish Line hand-in-hand on a rain-swept Constitution Hill. The duo recorded a time of two hours, 11 minutes and 48 seconds while creating a friendship that has lasted a lifetime.

Meanwhile, Joyce Smith broke the British record to win the women’s race in 2:29:57. Smith triumphed again in 1982 as Hugh Jones became the first male British winner. It is the one and only time that Britons have won both male and female races.   

The following year, male and female wheelchair races were introduced, with Britain’s Gordon Perry (3:20:07) and Denise Smith (4:29:03) taking the titles. It’s an event that David Weir and Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson have gone on to dominate, with a record eight and six victories respectively.

World records smashed

Norway’s Ingrid Kristiansen dominated the women’s race in the mid-1980s – winning four titles. She is still the only woman to achieve this feat. At the age of 26, Kenya’s two-time winner Brigid Kosgei has time on her side in her bid to match and possibly surpass Kristiansen’s achievement that dates back to 1988.

World records have been beaten six times at the London Marathon. Norway’s Grete Waitz became the first London Marathon world record holder in 1983, with a time of 2:25:29. Her compatriot Ingrid Kristiansen bettered that two years later with 2:21:06.

Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe broke the world record twice – 2:15:25 for a mixed marathon in 2003, which remains a course record to this day, and 2:17:42 for a women’s only marathon in 2005. Kenya’s Mary Keitany was also a world record breaker in 2017, with a time of 2:17:01.

The greatest of all time

The only man to set a world record at the London Marathon is the USA’s Khalid Khannouchi, who ran a time of 2:05:38 in 2002. The men's course record is 2:02:37, set in 2019 by four-time winner and arguably the greatest marathon runner of all time, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya.

Australia’s Kurt Fearnley set the men’s wheelchair race course record at 1:28:57 in 2009 and the women’s wheelchair course record belongs to Switzerland’s Manuela Schär, who finished in 1:39:57 in 2017.

Consecutive victories

Only five athletes have won three consecutive London Marathon titles – Mexico’s Dionicio Cerón (1994-96) in the men’s race, Germany’s Katrin Dörre-Heinig (1992-94) in the women’s race, David Weir (2006-08) in the men’s wheelchair race, and both Francesca Porcellato (2003-06) of Italy and the USA’s Tatyana McFadden (2013-2016) have gone one better by winning four in a row.

No doubt there will be many more twists, turns and tales of the incredible as the London Marathon enters its fifth decade – we hope you’ll be watching the drama unfold alongside us.

This article was written in November 2020.

More event information

    • How to follow

      All your options for watching the inspiring spectacle that is the Virgin Money London Marathon

    • The 40th Race

      How the 2020 event became the only major city marathon to take place since Covid-19 struck

    • Training Plans

      Our 16-week Training Plans will guide you right through to the Start Line

    • How to follow

      All your options for watching the inspiring spectacle that is the Virgin Money London Marathon

    • The 40th Race

      How the 2020 event became the only major city marathon to take place since Covid-19 struck

    • Training Plans

      Our 16-week Training Plans will guide you right through to the Start Line

    • How to follow

      All your options for watching the inspiring spectacle that is the Virgin Money London Marathon

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