by Laurel Park, Jun. 15, 2002
As I write this it's one of the biggest marathon weekends of the year - London on Sunday and Boston on Monday. Anticipation is at fever pitch, not only for the elites but also for the thousands of "average joes" who pay big bucks to travel far and wide for the experience of putting themselves through 3-5 hours of serious self-flagellation. And from what I can tell, in the case of Boston the excitement of running the race is second only to the excitement of qualifying for it; kind of like the arduous, time-consuming task of applying to medical school, the thrill of being accepted, and the reality of 24-hour residencies.
I've never completed a marathon (I gave Columbus a try in 1995 but dropped at 20 miles with a hamstring injury) but I am married to a marathoner and I hear people speak of the distance with messianic fervor. Apparently, in some circles, life is not complete unless one tries a marathon. I'm not sure I agree with this, but it certainly seems to be the trend. Obviously as one ages and loses fast-twitch muscle, the logical plan is to take advantage of strength and endurance and race longer distances: 800 meters to the mile, mile to the 5000, 5000 to the 10,000, 10,000 to the marathon. Take a look at the intervals represented here: half a mile, a mile, 2.1 miles, 3.1 miles, 20 miles. Which of these is not like the others? It could be argued, of course, that most people will try a half-marathon before a full marathon, which would definitely fit into the above interval scheme, but I also know a lot of people who make the competitive jump from the 10K directly to the marathon.
Admittedly, for some people it makes sense. There are some collegiate 10,000 meter runners who will make terrific marathoners - you can tell by their strength, their stride, and their personalities. And quite a few people swear that running 26.2 miles at a "reasonable" pace is far less painful than 6.2 miles at a fast pace. Some enjoy the personal challenge of training for and completing a marathon. All of these are absolutely legitimate reasons for giving it a try. Some folks may find that, like Doug Kurtis, the marathon is their cup of tea while others may have the experience of a friend of mine, a successful 5K runner who attempted New York last fall and immediately afterward sent a mass e-mail to all his runner friends urging them to "JUST SAY NO!"
What bothers me is the unspoken attitude that you don't have full legitimacy as a runner unless you've tried a marathon. I don't think that the marathon is necessarily the last obvious step in anyone's racing career. Todd Williams, Liz McColgan, Paula Radcliffe and Lynn Jennings would have had my complete respect as world-class athletes even if they'd never raced farther than 5000 meters. I can imagine that having conquered shorter distances, one naturally turns to the biggest challenge of them all. But I'm not sure it's really necessary. Marathon training is tough on the body and sometimes signals the beginning of the end, as nagging injuries begin to crop up. Liz McColgan retired last year due to a persistent stress fracture in her foot, and after her excruciating debut at Boston, Lynn Jennings seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. I certainly trace the origin of my injury woes to that ill-fated attempt at Columbus.
If people want to run marathons and they enjoy doing it, great. More power to them! I just wish folks would stop pressing talented mid-distance runners to give the marathon a try. Regular as clockwork, when some world-class American runner reaches his late 20's, the questions begin: "Have you thought about trying a marathon? When are you going to do a marathon?" I hope some runners aren't pressured into trying the marathon just because other people think they should. No one should run a marathon unless he or she truly wants to - it's difficult enough to do it for yourself, much less for someone else.
I'll continue to support my marathon-focused friends and spouse, and wish them well in their training and racing. Running is ultimately about pushing oneself and having fun doing it. But just because something is great for one person doesn't mean it will be great for someone else. For those of us who are content with marathon-less careers, we'll be happy enough to hear the stories and appreciate the sense of accomplishment. We expect you'll do the same for us.