It’s an easy trap to try and put “When was running invented?” or “Who invented running?” down to a single lightbulb moment. Whilst this picture of running is heroic and seductive, it’s far from the reality.
Modern running, as we know it, happened in slow motion over many years. A series of events and advances, evolved out of the need to escape predators as early as the first land animals 420 million years ago.
Running wasn’t a means of relieving stress, losing weight, self-growth, or maintaining physical fitness. There were no organized endurance running events, such as the Lisbon marathon or Hadrian’s Wall ultras. The need to run was a primitive survival tool.
Running has clearly come a long way since.
In this article, we’ll cover a comprehensive history of running, from ancient Greek legends to the first messengers on foot, the first Olympic games to the modern-day jogging boom.
When Was Running Invented? A Whirlwind Tour of Running History.
Let’s start at the beginning: the ability to run, at all…
7 Million Years Ago – Body Changes Enable the “Invention of Walking”
For millions of years, 90% of waking human life was spent hunting and gathering. Doing so is far more effective when mobile.
Fossil discoveries of bipedal apes that predated Neanderthals and Homoerectus helped convince anthropologists that walking upright came before big-brained Homoerectus. This is before early humans used stone tools, fire, art, or caring for injured or sick group members.
The big aha! moment happened in 2001, building on 50 years of discoveries, when a group of French paleolithic archaeologists unearthed the seven-million-year-old Sahelanthropus tchadensis in Chad. These species were the first to have shorter forearms, a narrower waist, longer legs and large joint surfaces that made it possible to walk on two feet with the gait we’re familiar with today. Even so, their physical traits were more suited to tree climbing, and it was millions of years later until humans became completely terrestrial creatures.
So, human running and walking evolved from escaping predators and hunting. Humans excelled in something called “persistence hunting”, with our superior ability to chase prey for long enough to exhaust it in the open plains of Africa, compared to apex predators in the wild. Ancient humans turned to endurance running to find fuel in their diet from the protein provided by the meat, marrow and brain of animals.
1600 BC (ish) – The first ever competitive race event
The first ever competitive race event was at the ancient Tailteann Games in Ireland.
Taking place around 1600 BC, the ancient ceremony had three functions: honoring the dead, proclaiming laws, and funeral games and entertainment. The games included sports such as the long jump, high jump, boxing, swimming, running and chariot racing. Curiously it also featured competitions in jewellery making, weaving, strategy, singing and storytelling. Combat sports were out.
490 BC – Pheidippides and the Origin of Running Messengers
Farmers starting putting down their roots on the land — literally and figuratively. This brought more stable food supplies and the early invention of societies. In turn, bringing more purposes for running.
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Persians relied on messengers running over long distances. The very word “courier” (message carrier) means “runner,” from Latin “currere,” “to run”. Unlike horses, runners could run across hostile terrain and steep inclines, making it a valued profession.
Running races were also a means of keeping soldiers fit. In ancient Egypt, King Taharka made his soldiers run a 100km race to keep them in good shape for battle.
The most famous legend relating to running couriers is Pheidippides who is said, in 490 BC, to have delivered the news of the Greek victory over the Persians from Marathon to Athens on foot. Collapsing and dying of exhaustion immediately afterwords. To commemorate his dramatic run, the first ever Olympic marathon in 1896 was set at the same distance of 40 kilometers.
776 BC-393 AD – the First Recorded Olympic Games Take Place
Competitive running events became more commonplace with the inaugural Olympic Games taking place in 776 BC.
The threat of invasion or not, the ancient Olympic Games took place every four years from 776BC to 393AD. All Greek males were permitted to take part, regardless of standing, although the majority of Olympians were soldiers.
Like the Tailteann Games, the Games had a religious festival at its heart and featured largely the same sporting contests. A little known fact is that the athletes competed naked and with very few rules. Approximately 40,000 spectators would have filled the stadium each day to see the athletes battle it out, although the Olympic stadium was built and rebuilt many times to increase capacity.
1896 – The Modern Olympics is Born in Athens
The 1896 Summer Olympics was the first international Olympic Games held in modern history. The race from the city of Marathon to Athens took inspiration from the legend of Pheidippides. The winner, Spyridon Louis, became a national hero after completing the 25-mile marathon in 2:58:5 (the official marathon distance did not become a standard 26.2 miles until 1921).
The notion of the marathon was conceived by Michel Bréal (1832-1915) and was first aired in a letter from Bréal to Pierre de Coubertin, a founding member of International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894. It reads:
“If you go to Athens, you could try and see if a long distance run from Marathon to Pnyx could be organised. That would emphasize the character of Antiquity. If we had known the time that the Greek soldier had needed for the distance, we could have set up a record. I, personally, claim the honour of sponsoring the first marathon and trophy.”
The 1896 Olympics also featured the 100-meter and 400-meter sprint.
1897 – The First Ever International Marathon Race, Boston Marathon
Inspired by the Olympic games a year earlier, the Boston Marathon borrowed and popularized the format in 1897. In turn, becoming the world’s oldest annual marathon. Fifteen runners started the race but only 10 made it to the finish line.
Women were not officially allowed to enter the Boston race until 1972. Thankfully that didn’t deter the trailblazers. In 1966, Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb famously became the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon, having hidden in the bushes until the starting pistol went off. The following year, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run with a race number under a pseudonym. You’ll probably recognize the iconic image of officials trying (and failing) to remove her during the race.
The first official women’s marathon was not until the Los Angeles Olympics, 1986.
More organized races followed, including the world’s first recorded ultra race – the Comrades ultramarathon race in South Africa. Debuting on May 24, 1921, the course is exactly the same today, covering 89 kilometers (55 miles) from Durban through the long roads and luscious hills of the KwaZulu-Natal province to Pietermaritzburg.
The race was founded by WWI veteran Vic Clapham to commemorate the South American infantrymen lost in battle.
To today: Running Re-Invented as Everyday Exercise, Thanks to Nike
The popularity of running as a pastime is a common thread throughout the book Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike. It tells the inside story of Nike’s early years, written by its founder and board chairman Phil Knight. As it turns out, the story of Nike is the story of running as a hobby and fitness craze in America.
The running boom has its roots in New Zealand in the 1960s, where coach Arthur Lydiard formed Auckland Jogger Club, the first jogging club in the world. The first meet was in Auckland’s Cornwall Park on 11 February, 1962. The participants: 30 strangers. The distance: whatever you could manage. Little did they know they would start a movement of running as a sport and to unlock the benefits of jogging every day that would spread around the world.
Legendary American running coach, and future Nike co-founder, Bill Bowerman imported the concept to the US after a meeting with Lydiard, publishing a pamphlet on the topic in 1966. This was the groundwork for his best-selling book Jogging: A Physical Fitness Program for All Ages. Selling a million copies, it is credited for the explosion in running’s popularity, both among college athletes and as a recreational activity.
Bowerman issued an invitation in the local newspaper: “On Sunday, come and run!” Nearly 200 people show up, then 300, then 1,500. The rest is history.
Until then, joggers on the streets were a rare breed. Viewed a weirdos or even a menace to society, often stopped by police who were unsure how to deal with the “suspicious activity.”
Before long, jogging and running was mainstream, fun, and a means to a healthier life.
National celebrity runners such as Steve Prefontaine stimulated interest in the sport. At 19 the Nike ambassador was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. He later went on to hold several American records simultaneously, helping to inspire an entire generation to lace up and discover the health benefits of jogging.
Further fuel came from Nike’s big ad budgets, blockbuster movie releases, world records dropping, and tense on-track rivalries – all enthralling audiences worldwide
Today, there are over 620 million active runners in the world, turning to running as a hobby, competitive sport, therapy, social activity to meet like-minded souls, or simply as a way to keep fit.
A short Timeline of The History of Running
1600 BC – The first ever competitive events featuring running at the ancient Tailteann Games in Ireland
490 BC – Pheidippides runs the legendary distance from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of the Greek victory over the Persians
776 BC – The inaugural Olympic Games took place in 776 BC, repeating every four years until 393 AD
1896 – First modern Olympic games held in Olympia, Greece
1897 – the first ever international marathon race, Boston Marathon, with 10 runners crossing the finish line
1908 – the London marathon distance is extended to 26.2 miles at the bequest of the royal family, to allow them to watch the end of the race from their residence
1921 – world’s first recorded ultra race, the Comrades ultra marathon in South Africa
1947 – Thomas Running is falsely credited to have invented modern running around this date, according to memes at least
1962 – Auckland Jogger Club becomes the first jogging club in the world, organizing weekly training sessions in the local park
1971 – Legendary coach and Nike co-founder, Bill Bowerman, publishes his best-selling book Jogging: A Physical Fitness Program for All Ages, selling one million copies
1984 – The first official women’s marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics