Like many weird components of modernity, the standardized 26 mile and 385 yard marathon distance was allegedly established on the whim of a likely inbred British monarch.
The marathon of course draws its name from Marathon, Greece, the town immortalized by the story of Philippides, that poor Greek schlub who was allegedly made to run from from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of a victory over the Persians. This was approximately a 25 mile trot, that legend states killed poor Philippides upon its conclusion.
So when the first Modern Olympiad was being planned in Athens for 1896, its organizers wanted a largely symbolic event that touted Greek greatness, and a recreation of this run was included in the schedule. The 25 mile distance stuck around for the 1900 games in Paris, and the comically ill-fated 25 mile marathon that took place in St. Louis in 1904 is for another post, and includes athletes consuming rat poison.
But for the 1908 games in London, rumor has it Queen Alexandra threw a royal conniption and demanded the marathon start at Windsor Castle, and finish directly in front of the Olympic stadium’s royal box. So the once-standard 25 mile race became 26.2, and for whatever reason that’s the distance that was later ratified by the IAAF in 1921.
If you’re like me, you’re of the opinion that one rich person born into the position of ultimate privilege shouldn’t have all that power. And even though in the grand scheme of things the British crown altering the marathon distance is small potatoes in terms of the atrocities it’s committed, I think Queen Alexandra should have been forced to attempt to traverse the 26.2 mile course herself, just to realize how cruel it was to extend an already stupidly long race.
Could she have even done it? The answer is obviously, and resoundingly no. But how far could she have gone? What about other famous Londoners? How would they hypothetically fare? Using my proprietary algorithm and famed intuition, I found out.
Queen Alexandra — 0.8/26.2 miles
She could not have covered 26.2 miles without the use of a regal golden carriage. Ill health might as well have been her middle name. Physical movement was thought unbecoming of a dignified lady at that point in time, and I’d imagine she suffered from various, strange and exotic ailments that only plague the wealthy. She’d make it a mile, tops, before collapsing and requiring smelling salts and the vigorous flapping of many paper fans to become reanimated. (We won’t be speculating on any further members of the monarchy except modern ones; if you were alive back when exercise was something for peasants, you won’t fare well here.)
Winston Churchill — 3.5/26.2 miles
Though he probably never actually uttered the exact words, the inspirational plea to “never, never, never give up,” is widely attributed to Churchill. Don’t read too much into this because the British Bulldog would almost certainly give up after hobbling for less than an hour (stopping frequently to gasp for air and let loose a jowl-shaking expletive). Churchill was a heavy drinker, and a grotesquely doughy presence. Plus how many violent colonialists do you know who have completed a marathon?
Margaret Thatcher — 3.7/26.2 miles
Let’s just say, the Iron Lady was no IRON(WO)MAN. Thatcher may have run afoul of human rights advocates for her implicit support of the apartheid state in South Africa, but she certainly wasn’t running any preparatory miles to ready herself for this imagined race. The woman who many criticize for cracking the social safety falls short of cracking four miles, and needs somebody to drop her back off at 10 Downing Street–a ringing defeat for the self-deterministic philosophies embodied by Thatcherism.
Keith Richards — 12.4/26.2 miles
To be perfectly clear, Keith does not run, so much as he saunters this rather impressive distance. He doesn’t quite make it halfway, but for a man whose primary source of calories for several decades was a mixture of hard liquor, heroin and accidentally ingested cigarette butts, it’s not too shabby. The famed Rolling Stones guitarist does two things well: shred and exist. And though his movements may not be pretty, exist he does (for over 12 miles before growing bored of the whole affair and limping off course).
Jack the Ripper — ?/26.2 miles (DQ)
The pseudonymous serial killer captivated and horrified late 1800s London by murdering five or more sex workers in the proximity of Whitechapel. And these murders went unsolved! We still don’t know who he was and never will. Accordingly, he might finish the damn thing. But more likely, he hops on the Tube and cheats a la Rosie Ruiz. We can’t be certain until the Marathon Investigator’s final report is released, but criminologists who worked the Ripper case speculated that he suffered from “periodical attacks of homicidal and erotic mania.” A dude who derives quasi-sexual satisfaction from stabbing people? Sounds like a prime candidate to cheat in a marathon.
Kate Middleton & Prince William — 26.2/26.2 miles (5:43:27)
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are our slowest legitimate finishers, but good for them for going the distance. Kate Middleton sometimes winds up in the tabloids when she jogs around with a stroller or dogs, and half of England has to change its diaper. That means she’s one of the few folks on this list who actually have done any training. Prince William ultimately slows her down (look at the guy, he’s clearly the one struggling here), but she coerces him to finish, and the public eats it up. The couple’s 13-minute-miles serve to ingratiate them further to the recreational jogging demographic, whose adoration they so desperately crave.
David Bowie — 26.2/26.2 miles (5:01:59)
Like several of the other men on this list, the late great David Bowie had his struggles with addiction. But unlike the others, this monumental weirdo managed to kick coke and booze entirely, which bodes well for his ability to finish a marathon. Sobriety, being strange, and being very thin tend to lend themselves to successful distance running. So decked out in glitter and fully in-character, Ziggy Stardust stops minimally but delights the crowd as he goes along, finishing in a hair over five hours.
Princess Diana — 26.2/26.2 miles (4:21:45)
Perhaps the first monarch seen wearing spandex, Lady Di undoubtedly possessed the athletic chops to run a respectable marathon. An advocate for public health, it’s only natural she trains a bit for this thing, and inspires countless Britons in the process. She was also an anti-landmine advocate, which is slightly less relevant here but still cool.
Idris Elba — 26.2/26.2 miles (4:20:37)
The beautiful actor who portrayed “Stringer Bell” on The Wire is an extremely well-built man, strapped with muscle, which many people–myself included–equate with athleticism. Based on shirtless scenes I’ve seen of the guy in the classic Baltimore police-procedural drama, I’d have him pegged as capable of a sub-four-hour ‘thon. But upon seeing images of his jogging form, I think it’s generous to say that he runs stride-for-stride with Lady Di, before opening up a sizable gap on her during the last few miles.