Could 17th century man run a marathon?

I was watching a triathlon with a friend and he casually mentioned how these contests were possible only in our recent history, as ancient men and women physically could not carry out these feats. I scoffed at the idea, saying it sounded a lot like the discounting of people from years past that gives us “ancient man didn’t have the ability to build the pyramids, so it must have been space aliens.”
So could someone from, say, the 17th century, have run 26.2 miles? Of course, there were not organized sporting marathons then and I’m not suggesting that your average 17th century person could have done it. But surely there were human beings of that time who, if they had a reason or if they just liked running, could do so, right?
I cited the fact that the marathon is derived from Pheidippides running to report the victory at Marathon, to which my friend replied, “yeah, but then he dropped dead.”
I accept that our modern lifestyle, sports medicine, the ability to specialize and train regularly all make it possible for far more people to run a marathon today than in years past. But my friend insists that people of a few centuries past just physically could not. Any truth to that?

Hunter-gatherers are known to have hunted animals (deer, kangaroo, hartebeest and zebra, among others) by running them down, chasing after them until the animals collapsed of exhaustion. (cite)

They’d have had real difficulties with the bicycle riding segment.

Utrarunning history

The earliest known 1,000-miler was attempted in 1759 by George Guest , a wagoner from Warwickshire, England. At Birmingham, England, for a “considerable wager”, Guest attempted to walk 1,000 miles in 28 days. He knew that he needed to walk about 36 miles per day.


Pedestrianism was a unique sport which is said to have come from aristocrats in the late 17th century pitting their carriage footmen, constrained to walk by the speed of their masters’ carriages, against one another.

This became a firm fixture at country fairs much like horse racing, where pedestrians with support from trainers would grind out gruelling distances of up to a 100 miles per day and night for 6 days. This was over indoor sawdust tracks, getting just a few hours rest per day in makeshift huts beside the track, literally eating on the trot and undergoing tremendous hardships.

The modern marathon, as a race distance, was first contested in the 1896 Olympics. It wasn’t until 1921 that the official distance (42.195km/26 mi 385 yd) was established.

‘Running footmen’ were employed to run, sometimes over very long distances. Races involving them were not unknown.

In Paris, in 1778, two Italian running footmen, employed by two noblemen, decided to wager on who was the faster footman. The race was run from the Barriere de la Conference in Paris to the Grate at Versailles and back again, a round trip distance of about 24 miles. The footman who worked for the Duke of Bourbon was named Violette and was a native of Piedmont. The other footman was named Rossignol. He was a native of Rome and employed by the Count of Esterházy and he is the footman who won the race, completing the distance in 2 hours and 10 minutes.

A 17th Century person might not have made as good a time as a modern runner, but they could go the distance. In those days, most people spent most of their lives doing hard physical labor.

Today’s Kenyan and Ethiopian marathoners are often shepherds or cowherds, who routinely walk and run long distances in their everyday lives. In the 17th Century, that was common among Europeans as well.

Just to note that the story of the runner who dropped dead after running from Marathon to Athens to report the outcome of the battle is apparently of debatable historical accuracy.

The Incas used runners to carry messages all over the empire, up and down some very steep mountain trails. A marathon might’ve been a snap for them.

I can’t document this nor provide cites, but it my understanding that anthropologists say the human body evolved to walk about 20 miles per day … so 26 miles would not extraordinary.

Many through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail cover marathon distances in their day walks while carrying a backpack.

The Walking Purchase in 1737 covered about 70 miles in a day and half (using three runners).

There’s a Wikipedia article on persistence hunting.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that endurance running for persistence hunting is a primary element the human evolutionary niche, it’s one of our specialties. We may be innately better at it than any other animal, at least in some respects. The strategy is to deliberately hunt in the heat of the day, not to run fast but to run long, to exhaust your faster prey. Bipedalism, sweating as a cooling mechanism, sparse body hair are all adaptations that evolved (at least in part) for this reason.

If there’s even a grain of truth to the notion that we couldn’t do it in the 17th century, it would only be in the sense that since that’s since persistence hunting is no longer our way of life, and exercise for its own sake was not generally popular, the average person might have been out of condition. But is that any less true today? Nutrition has improved, but if anything we’re probably more sedentary on average than we were in the 17th century. What percentage of the modern population could run a marathon without dropping dead?

If someone is part of a society where running is a normal and typical way of travel, running becomes almost as easy as walking. The Tarahumara are a modern example. They live in a remote area in Mexico and run from village to village. They are great marathoners, but it has nothing to do with modern technology or training. In fact, they run in sandals made of old tire treads instead of fancy running shoes. They’re great runners because they’ve used running as a means of travel their whole life, so their bodies are fine with running long distances. One reason is that they maintain good running form. Kids often have good natural running form, but lose that form as they get older and run less. Modern adults often have to relearn how to run efficiently. But if you ran all the time as you were growing up, you would maintain an efficient running style into adulthood.

But if you didn’t run all the time, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to run a marathon. If you walked everywhere, you would be good at walking, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d be good at running. You could walk a marathon, but running would likely be difficult and painful. Whether a 17th century person could run a marathon would likely depend on whether that person ran on a regular basis in their day-to-day life.

Right - and they are not training their body to do something unnatural. Just using it every day the way it is innately designed to function by evolution.

I used to work with a guy who was part Apache. He used to enjoy telling us of feats the Indians could do. Among them was the story of how they could run down a deer to catch it. Once I was reading an article that mentioned a white tail deer could run 20 miles. He didn’t even hesitate - “Deer run twenty miles. Apache run twenty one”.

Interestingly, my friend who is making this argument is an AT through-hiker. (You don’t have to ask him. It’ll come up soon in any conversation. :wink:) He often did such distances in a day.

Thanks for the cites. The evidence seems pretty clear that there was no physical limitation to people bacl then doing what we now consider running a marathon.

A corollary to this. It’s well known that exercise, in particular aerobic endurance exercise, is therapeutic for mental health - stress, depression. It makes sense that doing what we are innately designed to do should give us a feeling of well being, that at least in a physical sense “things are as they should be”.

I don’t know what would qualify as ‘running’ a marathon. Is there some minimum speed to maintain for the distance? What distinguishes ‘running a marathon’ from ‘walking a marathon’? Whatever the answer is, the average 17th century man would clearly do better traveling 26 miles by foot than the average American would now. The percentage of Americans who have ever traveled 26 miles by foot in one day now is quite small compared to 17th century men.

I’d say if the person is using recognizably “running” gait/form, it counts as running no matter how slow.

The technical distinction between walking and running is that in walking you always have at least one foot on the ground, while in running both feet leave the ground at some point. But if you have the stamina to walk 26 miles you probably have enough to run it at least slowly.

There are few genetic changes between now and then, so they should be physically capable.

A poorer society (such as any in the 17th century compared to now) would have had fewer professional athletes. A long-distance Olympic runner might have that job “full time”, a self-employed job where failing to meet the cut means you aren’t competing and so aren’t getting paid, and that’s in a modern, “first world” nation. That would have been fatal in the 17th century then unless you could secure a patron. A modern Olympian likely pays coaches, doctors, nutritionists/dieticians, etc. Of course you don’t have to be an Olympian to run a marathon, and indeed, many non-professionals run marathons today. I just think a modern day person would have a competitive advantage compared to a 17th century person.

A poorer and less educated society had poorer nutrition and medicine. I don’t know if height plays a significant role (longer strides, I guess) but if so they would have a slight disadvantage. The average was shorter compared to today, but not terribly so, and there were certainly people over six feet tall in that century. Their diet would actually have been healthier in some respects (less processed food) but I think overall it would have been a negative for them.

People literally had to work harder in those days, so I’m imagining people from that time had an endurance advance. This is a case of nurture over nature.

If people in that century had professional marathon runners attached to an industry with rules (such as running vs walking), I assume they would have been mainly minor nobility with patrons. They would have had access to better nutrition than most commoners and would have been a bit taller and a bit more educated than the typical person. As professionals they would train their endurance. Even with disadvantages such as poorer medicine I think they would have been reasonably competitive.