1. To address the question of whether endotoxaemia could be involved in the inflammatory response induced by long-term strenuous exercise, 18 male marathon runners [mean age 41 +/- 2 (SEM) years] were studied. Their performance in the marathon ranged from 2 h 46 min to 4 h 42 min. 2. Four venous blood samples were drawn: at rest, just before the race (baseline); within 15 min following the completion of the marathon; after 1 h of recovery; and the morning after the race. 3. The following humoral markers of the inflammatory response to exercise were measured: polymorphonuclear myeloperoxidase (MPO), anaphylatoxin C5a (C5a), tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). Plasma endotoxin was measured by a sensitive and rapid chromogenic Limulus assay. All inflammatory markers were significantly increased (P < 0.001) after the race, reaching in most cases peak values in the first blood sample drawn following the completion of the marathon [MPO, 298 +/- 19 ng/ml (SEM); C5a, 1.45 +/- 0.32 ng/ml; TNF-alpha, 20 +/- 3 pg/ml; IL-6, 88 +/- 13 pg/ml] when compared with baseline [MPO, 146 +/- 16 ng/ml (SEM); C5a, 0.27 +/- 0.2 ng/ml; TNF-alpha, 12 +/- 1.5 pg/ml: IL-6, 1.0 +/- 0.5 pg/ml]. Traces of plasma endotoxin (ranging from 5 to 13 pg/ml, with one exceptionally high value of 72 pg/ml measured in one runner) were detected in seven subjects within the first hour of recovery. An ELISA method was used to determine the endogenous IgG antibodies toward a range of Gram-negative bacterial lipopolysaccharides (LPSs) of different sizes and structures. A transient decrease in certain anti-LPS activities, mainly against rough LPS, occurred in most cases in the first blood sample drawn after the race. There was no correlation between the magnitude of the inflammatory response to exercise, as assessed by the increase in blood levels of humoral markers of inflammation, and the changes in circulating endotoxin levels of anti-LPS IgG activity following the race. 4. From these results, we conclude that the mild, transient endotoxaemia detected in some of our subjects does not play a major role in the observed inflammatory response to a marathon competition.