In 490 BC, according to the legend, Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger, ran from Marathon in Greece to Athens to announce their victory over the Persian army. As he collapsed and died in glory, he couldn’t have imagined the scale of the tradition that was born.

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman who officially ran the Boston marathon. Against abuse, assault and insults, Kathrine finished the race and re-wrote history.

This weekend, all around the world, people are participating in the Virtual Edinburgh Marathon Festival as the celebration of sport and life continues online. And every contender is a part of the sport’s incredible heritage.

With a several-thousand-year history and more than 800 races held every year, the marathon is a truly unique piece of our heritage. Anyone who has ever completed the 26.2 miles will tell you that it’s an experience like no other.

Kathrine Switzer in 1967 at the Boston marathon

‘If you can run a marathon, you can do anything’ says Kathrine. ‘Anybody who finishes it will say the same thing. It is going to be an event that changes your life because you go through a lifetime of experience during the race.’

‘I’ve been running for 63 years and every day, it makes me feel part of nature, fearless, it helps me calm my brain and it gives me a lot of creativity, and it also gives me a huge sense of gratitude. Some people go to church, I go running.’

Even though the benefits of long-distance running are well documented, modern marathons are not only beneficial to the self. The Edinburgh Marathon Festival, currently taking place, has over 35,000 entrants, most of whom are non-professionals raising money for different causes. Since the start of the event in 2003, runners have raised over £35 million for charities.

This years’ virtual race is no different. Macmillan Cancer Support is the official charity of the event but teams are raising money for Marie Curie, WWF, Diabetes UK and much more. 

‘The marathon, in particular, is always bigger than a sporting event. It’s something like a quest for a higher cause. People sometimes can’t articulate what that is but that is one reason why charity running is so important for people, I think they feel like they’re contributing something to society.

‘And I think they feel a sense of diversity, inclusion, respect and equality that we cannot find almost in any other place. That aspect of men and women running together, all races, sizes, ages, incomes, aspirations, overcoming impossible odds to be there together is one of the greatest gestures in the world.’

Kathrine Switzer in 2017. Credit: Hagen Hopkins.

To complete this challenge is an amazing achievement with months of training behind it. And to do it all for a cause you believe in is simply extraordinary. But don’t ever, for a second think that you couldn’t do it.

‘First of all,’ Kathrine emphasises, ‘it’s never too late for anybody to start a sport or start running. I know people who started running at 70, 75, even 80. And they run, they run well, they have a lot of fun with it and they have good health.’

Kathrine started running when she was 12 and ran the Boston marathon at 20, becoming the first woman to do so, with an official bib number, 261, which inspired her company 261 Fearless. Now, with 42 marathons under her belt, she recognises how much the sporting event has changed.

‘The marathon is night and day from what it used to be! It’s gone from a little bunch of men-only eccentrics to this vast event that has changes the face of our cities and they change it for the better. For women, we have gone from exclusion to inclusion but not just women; wheelchair-users, blind people, overweight people, slow people, poor people, all different races, it’s for everybody. It’s humanity working together. The sense of unity is very profound.’

Kathrine feels that other runners have always been accepting of everyone, it is the institutions and organisers who caught up in recent years. This sense of camaraderie often helps runners overcome their mental and physical obstacles during the race.

2019 RUN 4 FFWPU

This year, there will be fewer opportunities to gain strength from the stranger running next to you, smiling in encouragement, but the runners are just as excited as ever.

‘2020 was a bit of a disaster for me in terms of running. I really didn’t run much at all. I was determined to get back to it in 2021 and needed motivation. And then the virtual option for Edinburgh popped up and I went for it. Looking forward to a nice, chill day to myself, exploring the Irish countryside. I’m not bothered about hitting a particular time, just want to complete it’ said Caitriona from Ireland, earlier in the week.

After, she celebrated her incredible achievement on Twitter.

Along with others, who are eager to get out there and challenge themselves.

Some runners have completed already, some are just warming up and putting their bib numbers on but the virtual Edinburgh Marathon Festival seems to have been a great success all over the world. 

To all marathon runners, from SWIS: Congratulations! We are so proud of you!

And if you haven’t yet, allow Kathrine’s words to inspire you. She says she found her own power in running, and it grows every day. ‘When you run the marathon, it feels overwhelming, it feels like you can accomplish the unimaginable. That is why the marathon is so incredibly powerful.’

If you would like learn more about Kathrine, watch this interview with Alison Walker, who was our special guest at our 2020 Virtual Awards Dinner.