There is no doubt that out of all the road running distances available, the marathon has by far the most appeal. Nearly everyone who has run a 5k or a 10k will, at some stage, dream about running the “big one” one day. And, even though this is not recommended, a lot of would-be runners will pick a marathon as their first ever race. They usually plan this as a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience, but many people end up getting bitten by the running bug for good.
Running 26.2 miles is a daunting task, no matter how you put it, and that does not depend on the ability of the runner. I have heard countless stories about first time runners’ struggles, from the experienced and competitive racer who was confident of beating 3 hours but ended up with 3:20 after some painful last few miles, to the walker who took over 6 hours to finally limp across the line equally exhausted. You might think that it gets easier with experience, but that is no guarantee for a strong finish either, as I personally found out last week. This was my 10th race of marathon distance or longer, and I was confident I would be able to finish strongly. However, my legs gave out on me with 6 miles to go, and the last stretch was just as much a struggle as it had been 4 years ago, when I had gotten my first taste of the distance, on the very same course. Others have similar tales to tell.
Of course, it is the size of the task that creates the appeal. While I don’t quite subscribe to the idea that crossing the finishing line of a marathon is a life-changing event, it clearly is an exhilarating experience and the pride and satisfaction that comes from completing such an intimidating challenge is immense. On the other hand, it can also be a very humbling experience. Having to slow down dramatically over the last miles is never nice and the pain that comes with it will remind you just how unforgiving the marathon can be.
Despite all this, the numbers are growing steadily. In 2007, more than 403,000 runners finished a marathon in the USA alone, a figure that has been growing year on year, and the trend is expected to continue. Big city events can be watched live on television, and it’s clearly the hobby runners, not the elites, that are the biggest draw to the audiences. While some people bemoan the fact that slow joggers are taking the competitive element out of it, most people agree that the growing numbers are a positive development.
Our favourite sport is likely to keep going for some time to come.
Photo credit: Caaaait on Flickr.