NYC Marathon runners
Debra L. Rothenberg/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Runners stream across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to start the 34th annual ING New York City Marathon in 2003.

In 1896, one of the events included in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens was a distance race from Marathon Bridge to Olympic stadium in Athens covering 24.6 miles (39.6 kilometers). In 1908, 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers) were added to this race at the Olympics in London to enable the royal family to view the finish from its box at Wembley Stadium. The modern marathon was born.

Marathon running is one of the most grueling tests of human endurance. At 26.2 miles, a marathon is equivalent to running around a 400-meter running track more than 104 times. But marathons are run through street courses and are anything but flat.

The New York City Marathon is the largest marathon in the world. More than 37,000 people (it's capped at 38,000) took part in the race in 2009. It's also one of the five World Marathon Majors -- the other four being the Boston, Berlin, London and Chicago marathons. When the World Championships and Olympics take place every four years, they're added as well.

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The race is put on by the New York Road Runners (NYRR) -- a group of more than 300,000 dedicated runners -- and in recent years the event has been sponsored by ING. The first race, held in 1970, had 127 entrants out of which only 55 crossed the finish line. Over the years, the course has changed and the number of participants has grown exponentially. So has its popularity.

The NYC Marathon isn't just for elite runners either. Many participants are handicap athletes participating in wheelchairs or on handcycles (high-tech, hand-driven tricycles). Others simply walk it.

But before you can run the NYC Marathon, you have to get in. That's easier said than done, as you'll soon learn. So let's begin with learning how to get into the race in the next section.