A word that runs fluidly, prettily, and not overlong. O, that its object were such an experience! Fourteen kilometres per syllable, more than five per letter – but the last syllable of the word is as long as the first two together, which is closer to the reality of the race, where the last quarter is as hard as the first three quarters together. We may note a fairly even run from m over a, r, a, but then, spiked by the t, we hit a wall at h – but there is no option but to go on. The word, mellifluousness notwithstanding, sweats endurance from every pore for those who know it. It starts with echoes of mare (a fast horse or the end of a bad dream) and perhaps even marriage (commitment and endurance); the remainder does not echo, it is echoed, in telethon and myriad other -a-thons. The word’s course has been as long and anfractuous as its race is. In 490 BC, Athenians put the Persians on the run at a place called Marathon, named after the fennel – marathron – that grew there. A runner carried the news of the victory – or, according to one source, ran to Sparta to ask for reinforcements. In 1876, Robert Browning write a poem about this; the runner, reaching Athens, 25 miles distant, shouts victory and collapses dead, which will sound about right to many a modern marathon finisher. In 1896, the modern Olympics were born, and a race from Marathon to Athens was held, inspired by Browning. In 1908, to make the race reach from royal children at Windsor to royal adults in London, the distance was extended to 26 miles 385 yards; after some further deviations, it was permanently set in 1921 at the London distance, and thus it remains today, about 6 miles past the point where a human’s fuel tank normally runs out (look for a future word tasting note on bonk).

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