Thursday, 18 September 2014

#132 In defense of the marathon

Why 42.2K is still the king of all distances.

This post is not empirical. It's purely opinion. Personal and passionate opinion based on experience and preference alone.

Recently, a number of people have spoken out against running the marathon. Deeming the legendary race as excessive, over-hyped and potentially even dangerous, some argue that running a marathon is no longer worthy of the praise and admiration it once was.

And I'll admit, they have a point!

The past decade has seen an unprecedented increase both in terms of the number of events offered — hundreds — as well as the number of finishers — millions — leading some to question whether simply completing a marathon is any longer an accomplishment worth bragging about. Indeed, it now seems that almost every runner you meet these days has no doubt dabbled in the marathon, with varying degrees of success.

The running of the marathon is said to have begun following the Legend of Pheidippides which arose from the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. More recently, it has been a regular part of the modern Olympics dating back to 1896 and since 1921 has adopted the standard distance of 42.195K (26 miles 385 yards).

As such it stands as a concrete and unchanging constant — a benchmark — by which to compare ourselves with all others, regardless of when or where we ran.

Given it's immense popularity, it's long since been established that completing a marathon can be done by almost anyone, anywhere, at any time. But what many fail to understand and accept, is that running a marathon well — to the best of our ability — it the true test of the distance, and what really makes it great.

Running and training for the marathon takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. It means running most days of the week — sometimes more than once — including long runs, hard workouts as well as countless easy runs to log essential time on our feet. It also requires significant sacrifice. Time that could be spent together with family and friends is now spent on the roads, tracks and trails, often in isolation, but always with a specific purpose. Needless to say, training for a marathon is not something to be taken casually.

There are no doubt people who sign up for a marathon with little idea as to what they're getting themselves into. Others are unable or unwilling to put in the time and energy needed to adequately prepare, which may lead to injury, frustration and a negative running experience. Many do just enough to do it once and never again. Some do them so often they lose track of how many they've run or the time it took to do so. Others move on to other distances, which may attract fewer competitors or require less time and energy.

People choose to run the marathon for many reasons. Whether for personal health and fitness, for charity and community or simply to say you did it, the act of participating and completing the distance is valuable in and of itself. 

However, here I'll contest that running the marathon and aiming to do it well — the best you possibly can —  is truly the best reason and motivation to run. To do it better than you have before and to push — and potentially exceed — your physical and mental limits. To strive to improve and be better than you were. To take on a task that is incredibly challenging and which requires great competence and skill. To risk almost certain failure and disappointment. To hope and dream to what may be.

The human body was not made to race 42.2K. Thirty maybe, even 35, but not 42.2. This is where many approach the dreaded wall, where the wheels fall off and seconds can begin to feel like an eternity. The last 10K is what really makes the marathon. Anything can happen in the final few kilometres. No one knows what is coming.

It's not about how you start the race. It's all about how you finish. And while finishing may be good enough for some, it is those who choose to push and test the limits of themselves over 42.2K — to enter the unknown and face the fear of failure — that truly know what makes the marathon the ultimate distance to race.


Personal note: To date I have completed (only) six marathons. My first in 2:49. My fastest in 2:34. My 'best' race was my second attempt, a 2:37 at the 2012 Goodlife Toronto Marathon. My goal is to one day run a sub 2:30 marathon. Far from elite, but better than average. I don't aim to the best. I aim to be MY best. 

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