"I pulled a hamstring during the New York City Marathon,” David Letterman once said about marathon running. “An hour into the race, I jumped off the couch…”
It is not a surprise that couch enthusiasts and others who believe sweat should only be induced by spicy meals are intrigued and often perplexed by their fellow species who choose to forgo creature comforts and instead pound the pavement, often for hours on end. Understandable. Especially when discussing running—a sport other sports use as a punishment or deterrent. Remember the dreaded laps you had to run around the track if you showed up late to PE or tennis practice at school?
But before we delve into why runners, especially marathoners and ultrarunners, are baffling, let’s start with a simple one-question personality test.
What is a marathon?
What’s the first thought that comes into your mind when you hear the word “marathon”?
- A 26.2-mile foot race
- An intense and prolonged workout effort
- Hours of binge-watching multiple episodes of one TV show
If you answered C, you’re likely to describe yourself and be described by the world as “normal.” Good for you. Neil Armstrong agrees:
I believe that the Good Lord gave us a finite number of heartbeats and I’m damned if I’m going to use up mine running up and down a street.”
The facts are clear: Less than half a percent of the world’s population has run a 26.2-mile foot race.
And the rest subscribe to this credo:
“The only marathon I want to participate in involves a couch, a blanket, and a bowl of popcorn.”
Fair enough. It makes sense, especially since the origin story of how the marathon came to be does not inspire much confidence.
The origin story
Pheidippides (530–490 BC), an Athenian courier, is said to have run from the town of Marathon to Athens — a distance of 25 miles — to convey the message of Greece’s victory over Persia in the Battle of the Marathon to the Athenians. And just as he finished delivering his message, Pheidippides fell and, wait for it, died!
Given that ending, viewing the marathon as an “aspirational” event is hard. However, the backstory that often goes unmentioned is that Pheidippides had run 150 km before his last run, which probably led to his demise. At least we runners are sticking to this version of the story.
The Royal Twist
To honor Pheidippides’ journey, the first modern Olympic games in 1896 instituted the marathon race — a foot race with a distance of 25 miles—a nice, round number until it was Britain’s turn to host the 1908 Olympics.
Rumor has it that Queen Alexandra requested the marathon run to start from the gardens of Windsor Castle and finish in front of the royal box at the White City stadium so the Royals could get a good look at the participants. This “royal preference” added another 1.2 miles to the original route, making the marathon the now familiar 26.2-mile format.
Leave it to the Brits to add complexity to everyone else’s lives just for their amusement.
So, here’s the question. If running a marathon caused Pheidippides to die and make most of us lose our toenails (and sometimes, our friends), why do we still do it?
Short answer: It makes us runners feel special.
Marathoners: Life is too easy. I must find a way to make it much, much harder—Glennon Doyle.
Seven truths about marathon running
Here is some wisdom (and pet peeves) I’ve accumulated over my years of marathon running. My hope is that fellow runners will appreciate these, and my non-runner friends will understand why we runners are so bizarre.
1. The runner’s high is real
Before you start a race: Why did I ever sign up to do this?
Right after you finish the race: When can I sign up again?
The runner’s high is a real thing. That’s why most runners sign up for races immediately after finishing one! In reality, though, it’s really dopamine deception — endurance running releases dopamine to make you forget the pain. And there isn’t much you can do about it. So enjoy the ride!
Running a marathon is like childbirth. You forget the pain once it’s over and sign up to do it again.
2. Running is NOT a cheap sport
“My biggest fear is that when I die, my husband will sell all my running gear for what I told him they cost.” Anonymous.
If you think running is a cheap sport, think again. Between the fancy running shoes, moisture-wicking gear, and time-recording devices, it’s a financial marathon of its own. And the part that non-runners find incredibly incredulous? We runners pay a fee, often a hefty one, to run in a place where we can run for free every other day.
3. Your brain stops working during hard runs
After an hour on the run…
What year is it?
People often ask what I think about during a run. The real answer? My brain cells are too fried to have any cogent thoughts. I often contemplate advanced math problems such as “What’s nine times 8?”
4. Endurance running is more a mental than a physical sport
I’m sorry if I don’t wave or smile back at you while running. I’m trying very hard not to die.
During an endurance race, it is natural to question every life choice you’ve ever made. Is it too late to switch to underwater basket weaving?
It may seem like running a marathon is really a lot of work just for a free banana. And yet we do it.
5. Runners are a competitive lot. Even slow pokes like me
Whenever I see someone running faster than me, I assume they’re not going very far.
Most marathoners are told, “You’re not racing; you’re simply running for yourself.” Oh, really? Tell that to the runner who just breezed past you, and suddenly, you’re Usain Bolt’s twin sister trying to catch up!
6. Pet Peeve Alert: A marathon is 26.2 miles. No less
Less than a half percent of the world’s population actually finishes an official marathon. This club’s exclusiveness is often why most marathoners balk when people add the “marathon” suffix to 5 and 10Ks. Just so we are clear: There are no such things as a 5k marathon or a 10k marathon. It’s like calling a salad a cheeseburger.
And, for perspective, ultra-marathoners—the craziest of our lot—even view the 26.2-mile versions as short training runs.
7. 6 a.m. wake up = Sleeping in
Runners don’t think twice about waking up pre-pre-dawn to get their miles in, mainly because they want to get their runs in before their brains have time to figure out what’s happening.
No, it’s not the love of the sunrise; it’s just to calm the inner masochists we run when sensible people are still snuggled up in bed.
But there’s a bonus: one with a selfless benefit. Like me, many runners are unpaid neighborhood watches for our communities. To stay safe pre-dawn, we restrict ourselves to running in well-lit areas, which can sometimes mean running 28 loops on two streets. I agree. It sounds completely ridiculous. But it helps us know and understand our neighborhoods intimately and helps us look for suspicious activity and stray dogs. Consider it our contribution to law and order and world peace.
After all this, it’s not hard to understand our need to brag, is it?
How do you know if someone ran a marathon? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you. Jimmy Fallon.
I’ve written extensively about the ills and pitfalls of social media. However, it’s only fair to acknowledge that there is one aspect in which it proves undeniably handy for me.
If it weren’t for social media, I’d have to call 600 people to tell them I ran today.
Marathon running is like a rollercoaster: equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. And the reason some of us do it is that, as American ultrarunner Dean Karnazes said:
There is magic in misery. Just ask any runner.