LEGEND has it that the first person to try it dropped dead at the finish line. Yet, undeterred by the fate of Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce victory over the Persian enemy in 490BC before collapsing in a heap from his exertions, this Sunday 4200 runners will take to the streets of Edinburgh in a bid to complete the ultimate running challenge.
Unless you count the Edinburgh to Fife Marathon in 1999, this is the first time that the epic 26.2 mile race has been held in the city for 17 years. The organisers of the event, which is being staged at a cost of 400,000 without any public money, hope that it will now become an annual fixture.
It is already the second-largest marathon in the UK after London, and its main sponsor is Syntegra, the IT consulting arm of BT.
Of course, Edinburgh is somewhat slow in catching on to the popularity of the marathon, for it is the one individual sporting event which seems to be able to capture the public’s attention like no other. Only the Olympic Games and the World Cup are up there on the same podium.
While old Pheidippides may have started the whole thing, marathon running really took off towards the end of the 1970s and boomed throughout the following decade. New York kicked off the phenomenon with its first marathon in 1979.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the population became generally obsessed with all things athletic thanks to Seb Coe, Steve Cram and Steve Ovett. Former steeplechaser Chris Brasher decided that what the Big Apple could do, London could too, and the first marathon was run there in 1981.
Recently the event has seen a resurgence in popularity, thanks - in Britain at least - to Paula Radcliffe.
Last year, Radcliffe emerged on to the marathon scene in a blaze of glory. Firstly she ran the second-fastest time in history at the London event, and then she set an outstanding record at Chicago in October of the same year, completing the race in just 2:17:18. And this year she outdid herself again, winning the women’s London marathon in 2:15:25.
So what is it about marathon running that continues to attract such public attention? According to Brasher - who was asked shortly before he died in February this year about why the London event attracts three or more entries for each of the 30,000 or so people who are accepted - it’s because of our "ever-increasingly sedentary and safe society". "People require a challenge in life," he says. "And training for a marathon can also provide an outlet for frustration, boredom and anger."
Indeed, before Brasher came along the marathon was the preserve in Britain of a highly trained elite. It was the toughest event on the Olympic programme: men died attempting to complete it, so to think that the couch potatoes of the video age might be tempted to train for and run such a distance, to bare their frailties in public, was unthinkable. However, these days thousands of people do precisely that.
Adrian Stott, manager of Edinburgh’s Run and Become store in Dalry, says the lure of the marathon - both for runners and spectators - is that it’s still regarded as one of the ultimate physical challenges.
The 48-year-old, who has run 70 marathons and on Sunday will first run the Edinburgh course in reverse before joining the thousands at the start and running the route again, says: "I think it’s just the challenge - a physical and a mental one. It’s something you do yourself. You don’t rely on others or a team. It’s just you pushing yourself on.
"It’s a challenge outside the realms of ordinary life and I think most people who run a marathon, whether it be for charity or as an athletic race, feel the same way about it."
Of course, the Edinburgh race isn’t just aimed at athletes and elite amateurs. One of the major reasons the marathons attract so many people is because their endurance is rewarded with sponsorship for charity.
Runners of all abilities this Sunday are expected to raise an impressive 1.5 million for 140 charities, though the seven official charities are CHAS, Maggie’s Centre, Hope for Children, WellChild, Guide Dogs, the Thistle Foundation and the RNLI.
After - hopefully - months of training, the runners will assemble at Meadowbank Stadium from 8.15am. The race starts at 8.45am, with the first runner expected to finish shortly after 11am, and most should be back at the stadium by 3pm.
Even they won’t be the slowest, reassures Antony Charles, one of the directors of Edinburgh Marathon Ltd, the four-man company established last year to get the event up and running.
"The marathon actually started at 9am on Monday, when Lloyd Scott set off in his 130lb deep-sea diving suit," he laughs. "He’ll take six days to complete the course and should finish around 1pm on Sunday - making him the world’s slowest official marathon entrant."
Former fireman Lloyd has already found fame running the London and New York marathons in aid of Children with Leukaemia - and he’s planning to run the Loch Ness Marathon in September underwater - but he’s not the only runner who deserves credit for raising money.
He adds: "More than half the runners are raising money for charity - we know of one runner, David Dunlop, who’s raising over 7000.
"Some runners are experienced marathon runners, for others this is their first time, while some are terminally ill and this may well be their last time. Several partially sighted or blind runners are taking part - they are running tethered to guides.
"But they all want to do it because it’s a personal achievement and also helps raise cash for their charity."
The course itself - which the organisers euphemistically describe as "undulating" - starts and finishes at Meadowbank Stadium and takes in some of the most spectacular sights the city has to offer: Arthur’s Seat, the Castle, Holyrood Palace, the Royal Yacht Britannia.
According to the organisers, the best vantage points for spectators will be at, of course, Meadowbank, where a limited number of seats are available to watch the start and finish (first come, first served), Holyrood Park, where the 0.7 mile ascent of Arthur’s Seat will definitely sort out the pros from the plodders, Princes Street and Portobello Promenade.
With such a stunning backdrop, the organisers believe the marathon has the potential to draw running enthusiasts from all over the country and beyond.
Of the 4200 entrants, 35 per cent are from Edinburgh, a third are from the rest of Scotland, 26 per cent are from the rest of the UK and four per cent - that’s 190 runners - are from abroad, including the United States, Africa and New Zealand.
No-one under the age of 18 is allowed to compete, but the oldest runner is Alan Morton from Wales, who is a sprightly 72 years young - unless anyone was fibbing on their entry form.
The event has attracted so much interest that preparations are already under way for next year’s race.
Charles, who took part in the last Edinburgh Marathon in 1986, says: "It is costing about 400,000 for us to stage the event. Edinburgh City Council is charging 65,000 for road closures and the police are charging 10,000 - so we’re paying our way with no cost to the tax payer. We have had no funding from any government organisation.
"The Syntegra Edinburgh Marathon will be an annual event, however. The event was set up primarily as a vehicle for charities to raise money, but we are aiming to be a sporting festival, alongside the Hogmanay and arts festivals.
"This year we have family entertainments at Meadowbank, plus food vendors, and next year we’ll have supporting events over the weekend such as a mascot race, track-based events, and a health and fitness expo. The 2004 Marathon will include a Marathon Relay - teams of four running a quarter of the route each. The expected entry for the Marathon and Relay is around 10,000 runners."
But the immediate priority is to ensure that this weekend’s race goes smoothly.
It is literally a marathon effort for all concerned, and not just the runners. Some 650 volunteers are involved, handing out some 60,000 bottles of water from Purely Scottish at eight water stations around the course, plus at Meadowbank, as well as High 5 energy gel at the 18-mile point - where runners may otherwise hit the dreaded wall - and recovery drinks and bananas at the finish.
Medical staff will be on hand around the course, and at a treatment centre at Meadowbank, plus more than 20 sports masseurs and physios will be there to soothe away those aches and pains.
Not even they could have saved poor old Pheidippides, of course - but he probably hadn’t done his training.
List of city streets set to be closed to traffic on Sunday
• Pop up map: Edinburgh Marathon route
FROM 8AM to 11AM
• Meadowbank Terrace
• Royal Park Terrace, at Meadowbank Terrace
• Queen’s Park Avenue, at Meadowbank Terrace
• Duke’s Walk
• Queen’s Drive
• Holyrood Park Road, at Queen’s Drv
• Holyrood Gait
• Holyrood Road, eastbound from St Mary’s Street to Dumbiedykes Road
• St John Street
• Gullan’s Close
FROM 8.30AM to 11AM
• Pleasance, at Cowgate
• St Mary’s Street
• Boyd’s Entry
• Gullan’s Close
• South Gray’s Close
• Blackfriars Street (traffic allowed to exit Crowne Plaza car park to High St)
• New Skinner’s Close
• Dickson’s Close
• Niddry Street (access only for Crowne Plaza car park)
• Robertson’s Close, at Cowgate
• Infirmary Street, at Cowgate
• Blair Street, at Cowgate
• Tron Square
• Stevenlaw’s Close
• Guthrie Street, at Cowgate
• Old Fishmarket Close
• Candlemaker Row, at Cowgatehead
• West Bow
• Grassmarket (excluding one-way section)
• Heriot Bridge
• West Port
•King’s Stables Road and Lane
• Lothian Road, southbound between Princes Street and King’s Stables Road
• Princes Street, westbound from South Charlotte Street to Lothian Road and from South Charlotte Street to Waverley Bridge
• The Mound
• Frederick Street, at Princes Street to westbound traffic
• Hanover Street, southbound from Rose Street to Princes Street
• Waverley Bridge, entire north side and south from entrance to Waverley Station to Market St
• Market Street, from Waverley Bridge to East Market Street
• Jeffrey Street
• Cranston Street
• New Street, at Canongate
• Old Tolbooth Wynd, at Canongate
• Brown’s Close
• Abbey Strand
• Horse Wynd
FROM 9AM to 11.30AM
• London Road, west from Willowbrae Road to Meadowbank
• Meadowbank Avenue, at London Rd
• Parsons Green Terrace, at London Road
• Wolseley Crescent, at London Road
• Abercorn Road, at Willowbrae Road
• Willowbrae Avenue, at Willowbrae Rd
• Willowbrae Road, from London Road to Abercorn Crescent
• Baronscourt Road, at Willowbrae Rd
• Piershill Terrace, at Willowbrae Road
• Willowbrae Gardens, at Willowbrae Road
FROM 9AM to NOON
• Northfield Road, east from Willowbrae Rd to Northfield Broadway
• South Elixa Place
• Mountcastle Drive North, west from Northfield Brdwy to Duddingston Rd
• Northfield Farm Road, at Mountcastle Drive North
• Mountcastle Grove
• Northfield Farm Avenue, at Mountcastle Drive North
• Mountcastle Loan, at Mountcastle Drive North
• Northfield Drive, at Mountcastle Drive North
• Hamilton Drive West
• Hamilton Gardens
• Hamilton Grove
• Duddingston Road, west from Mountcastle Drive North to Duddingston Park
• Mountcastle Drive South, at Duddingston Road
• Durham Road, at Duddingston Road
• Duddingston Park, Duddingston Rd
• Southfield Place
• Brighton Place, entire east side, west from Southfield Place to south of Rosefield Place
• Stanley Street, at Southfield Place
• Station Brae, at Southfield Place
• West and East Brighton Crescent, at junction with Brighton Place
• Rosefield Place, at Brighton Place
• Sandford Gardens, at Brighton Place
• Lee Crescent, at Brighton Place
• Windsor Place, at Portobello High St
• Hope Lane North, at Portobello High Street
• St Mark’s Place, at Portobello High Street
• St Mary’s Place, at Abercorn Street
• Regent Street, at Portobello High St
• Marlborough Street, at Portobello High Street
• Bellfield Street, at Portobello High St
• Bellfield Lane, at Portobello High St
• Pittville Street, at Abercorn Terrace
• John Street, at Abercorn Terrace
• James Street, at Abercorn Terrace
Brunstane Road North, at Abercorn Terrace
• Brunstane Road, at Abercorn Terrace
• Morton Street North, at Joppa Road
• Morton Street, at Joppa Road
• Joppa Park, at Joppa Road
FROM 9AM to 12.30PM
• King’s Place
• King’s Road, at King’s Place
FROM 9AM to 1PM
• Seafield Road, east from Portobello Promenade to Salamander Street
FROM 9.30AM to 1PM
• Salamander Street, east from Seafield Street to Baltic Street
• Baltic Street, east from Salamander Street to Constitution Street
• Constitution Street, south from Baltic Street to Ocean Drive
• Marine Esplanade, at Seafield Road
• Bath Road, at Salamander Street
• Ocean Drive, east from Constitution St to roundabout at Ocean Terminal
FROM 9.30AM to 1.30PM
• North Leith Sands
• Lindsay Road, east from North Leith Sands to Newhaven Place
• Newhaven Place, east from Lindsay Road to Pier Place
• Pier Place, east from Newhaven Place to Starbank Road
FROM 10AM to 1.30PM
• Starbank Road, east from Pier Place to Trinity Crescent
• Trinity Crescent, east from Starbank Road to Lower Granton Road
• Granton Square, east from West Harbour Road to Lower Granton Road
• Lower Granton Road, east from Trinity Crescent to Granton Square
• Newhaven Harbour, at roundabout with Newhaven Harbour
FROM 10AM to 2PM
• West Harbour Road, east from Granton Square to West Shore Road
• Oxcraig Street, at West Harbour Rd
• Chestnut Street, at West Harbour Rd
• West Shore Road, east from West Harbour Road to pedestrian footway at Gypsy Brae
FROM 10AM to 2.30PM
• Marine Drive, at Silverknowes Road to eastbound traffic
• Silverknowes Road, north from Marine Drive to south access to Silverknowes Drive. Both sides from Silverknowes Drv to Silverknowes Dell
• Silverknowes Road East, north from access to cycleway to Silverknowes Rd
• Silverknowes Hill, at Silverknowes Rd
• Silverknowes Crescent, at Silverknowes Road
• Silverknowes Drive, at Silverknowes Road
• Lauriston Farm Road, at Silverknowes Road and Silverknowes Parkway
FROM 10.30AM to 4PM
• Coburg Street, south from cycleway exit to Great Junction Street
• Great Junction Street, east bus lane from Coburg Street to Duke Street
• Duke Street, east from Great Junction Street to Lochend Road
• Lochend Road, north from Duke Street to Lochend Road South
• Lochend Road South, north from Lochend Road to Marionville Road
• Marionville Road, entire south side and north side from east of Kwik-Save access to Lochend Road South
• Constitution Street, at Great Junction Street
• Mill Lane, at great Junction s• l Taylor Gardens, at Great Junction Street
• King Street, at Great Junction Street
• Cables Wynd, at Great Junction St
• Henderson St, at Great Junction St
• Academy Street, at Duke Street
• Duncan Place, at Duke Street
• Hawkhill Avenue, at Lochend Rd end
• Lochend Park, at Lochend Road
• Lochend Castle Barns, at Lochend Road South
• Dalgety Road, at Marionville Road
• London Road, bus lane between Wishaw Terrace and Clockmill Lane
See Monday’s Evening News for four-page picture special and Tuesday’s paper for names and times of all finishers.