Monday, December 19, 2011

Monday Mutterings: The Marathon Bandwagon

 I've been around the block a few times...And 2012 marks 40 years of running - 40 years of identifying myself as a runner. Over the years I've gone through many phases and stages with running. But it was not until I had been road racing for several years, and regularly running 45-60 miles a week for at least 10 years that I took on a marathon. I had, and have, great respect for the marathon. Did I have too much respect for the distance? Was I just a wimp about this? Did I make a big deal out of nothing? Why did I spend all those years running 10ks when I could have just cut to the chase and done something more exciting?

Today it seems that many runners jump straight into a marathon. It seems that some see this step as a necessary prerequisite to calling themselves runners. Are we using the marathon as a proving ground, to show we've got what it takes, to show that we're 'real' runners? The running statistics over the past two decades indicate that we are in the midst of what some call a new running boom. But this boom is seen primarily in the number of new runners running marathons. There's been an explosion in the number of people running marathons driven by first timers and, more surprisingly, first timers who are also running novices. There are dozens upon dozens of "beginner" or "novice" marathon training plans available. Many new runners itching for a real challenge are assured that with the right training they too can have a fun and successful marathon.

But what's the rush? Why are so many new runners choosing to take on a marathon during their first year of running?  Or...Is running just too easy? Did I somehow miss this fact?

All those novice training programs assure us that we can do it easily, yes, easily, with a proper 16 week training program. It's right there, neatly written on just one page - all I need to do is right there. Follow that plan and, bingo, glory!  Dreams start streaming through my mind as I read through my "beginner" program and all those encouraging words of assurance: You can finish a marathon by learning some of the basics. Finishing a marathon is an accomplishment that less than 1% of people in the world can say they have achieved. You are about to be one of them! Yes.

Back in the day, runners were encouraged to get a couple years of running under their belts before considering a marathon. The theory, way back then (and even more reasonable and responsible advice today), was that you should probably not run a marathon until you have at least a year of running experience behind you with some shorter races thrown in. This allows you to develop and prepare the mind and muscles and tendons and joints for the miles and miles and miles of training ahead. Running shorter races gives you a chance to learn about race logistics, proper fueling and preparation, pacing, crowd management, etc - things you just don't have to deal with during regular training runs.

While the physical demands of training are enormous (especially for a new runner) the more important question is whether new runners have the "running maturity" (yes, that's a term I just cooked up) to run a marathon. By "running maturity" I'm referring to more than overall physical strength. Running a marathon and training effectively for a marathon is as much, or more, mental as it is physical. A new runner really has no idea what they're getting themselves into. How can they? Even someone who has been running for many years really can't know what's ahead when they decide to train for a marathon.

But newer runners are less likely to understand how to train effectively (having some idea of how to train and why you're training the way you're training), how to pace themselves based on reality not pie-in-the-sky dreams of momentary greatness (Oh, I've had many of these), how to recover, how to deal with injuries, how to fuel effectively, and on and on. A new runner probably hasn't had a whole lot of experience hearing the incessant, insistent voice inside their heads that asks (that pleads) over and over, "why are you doing this to me?". They don't yet have the confidence (because they lack the experience), that they can get through a long training run, never mind the race itself. On paper, a 16 week training plan seems pretty straight forward and simple. Follow each step as it's mapped out, and you've got yourself a done deal. It's easy as pie.

But I just keep coming back to the same questions: What's the rush? Why are so many jumping on the marathon bandwagon? Perhaps running really is just too easy. Putting one foot in front of the other 52,000 times can't be so tough. Can it? And can I really call myself a 'runner' if I haven't run a marathon?


  1. I can honestly say no marathon in my near future, because as you said, it is a lot on your body. I do however think that my furthest is a half. To challenge myself I love doing the obstacle courses, they are fun and challenging all together and are enough for me. I already do 5K's, next step 10K, then 15K then 1/2. Slow and steady for me so that my body can get used to the torture.

  2. This was a great, thought provoking post. I started running in November 2002. I did my first race in June of 2003. It was...a 5K. And I was happy with that. In fact, I stuck with the shorter distances for almost FOUR years before I attempted...a half-marathon. It wasn't until April 2008, almost 5.5 years from the time I began this journey, that I toed the line at my first marathon. What's the rush indeed. I say taking your time is the best approach.

  3. Exactly. I started long distance running in May 2010. I ran my first race - a Half Marathon in December 2010. One year later, 27 races later (Half's, 10k's, 5k's, etc) I will run my first Full in March 2012.

    I received A LOT of pressure to run a Full my first year in running. I always maintained that when my brain is ready - I will know.

    I didn't bow down to the pressure or what others expected of me. I ran in my time, in my way. No regrets.

    I look forward to my first Full experience - as it will be on my terms, and my way.

  4. As someone who "discovered" running far more recently than you, I guess the draw of the marathon for a beginner is that once you start seeing a 5k as a "short" distance, you start wondering how far you can go. It's far harder to take a few seconds off my 5k PR than a few minutes off my marathon, but I keep running them both. (Though training for the latter of course makes the prior harder... guess that's why elites have this thing called "specialization"?)

    Plus, the pop culture trendiness of the marathon makes it very alluring to non-runners as a "first step." I think the recent Running Times article was right in saying that the trend is shifting and will continue to shift from fulls to halves in the next couple of years, but there's still that "I accomplished something tough" mentality that draws people to the distance.

    That said, hell no, you don't need to do a marathon to be a "real runner." I hate that mentality and see it all too often in marathon groups. Some people run to run, some try to improve their PRs, some just try to run as many races of a certain distance as they can (or in a certain pattern such as 50 states), etc. The marathon just happens to be where all different sorts of runners converge.

  5. Thank you for writing this post as I have gone back & forth myself on whether or not to try and tackle the distance. I started with the half and have worked my way backwards to the 5k. My goal is to run Chicago in 2012, but I may reconsider waiting another year. Not sure - the distance doesn't really appeal to me, but do like the challenge of the half.

  6. I ran off and on for 15 years before 2009. Never could get consistent. It was the challenge of the marathon that finally made me stick to it. I knew the only way I could possibly finish was if I did my training day after day, week after week. Once I told people I was running a marathon, there was no choice but to get out there. I never even wanted to be a "runner". Too boring(I thought). But, the marathon is such a transcendent challenge that I wanted to do one. I committed to run the 2009 Denver Marathon in May, and at the time I could do 2-3 miles, max. I stuck to my training(because I knew I had to), and 5 months later ran my first race, which was the Marathon. At the starting line I never thought I'd do more than one, it was a bucket-list sort of thing. About 15 miles in, I thought to myself "crap, I guess there's no denying I'm a "runner" now." And by mile 23 I thought to myself "I bet I could go under 4 hours for my next one!"(Which I did)
    I agree with your premise, but for me it was only the allure of the Marathon that started me running.
    What I find far more annoying/troubling than people who don't respect the Marathon are the other 99% of people out there who say "I could NEVER run 26 miles, that's Crazy!" They give up and sell themselves short without even trying. It was life-changing for me, and I wish more people experienced it.

  7. Terrysrunning - I agree with you on many points, and clearly this turned out very well for you, but for a lot of new runners, they never get to the starting line because of injuries or after they've 'survived' the race their shoes are packed away for good. It sounds like you had a bit more running experience (yes, you did) then the people I'm concerned about here. I think it would be just as helpful for the person sitting on the couch to think, "Hey, running a 5k or a 10k would be an amazing challenge". That might, just might, get more people off the couch because it wouldn't seem so overwhelming. I realize that the marathon has it's allure, but for many it remains a 'bucket list' thing and then they move on to other things - at least that what the statistics seem to indicate. So happy to hear that it jump-started your running life! The world would be better if everyone ran ;)
    Great comments everyone! Thanks for the feedback:)

  8. I could be seen as one of your folks that jumped on the band wagon. Running a marathon had been on my theoretical bucket list for years - probably since I was 18. Nevermind the fact that I didn't really run. At all. I played tennis in high school and running was seen as punishment. Had a vote been taken at that time I would inevitably won the "least likely to run" award.

    But then my 30s crept up on me and I felt like I wasn't accomplishing much in life. I just needed to tick something off that list. Running a marathon was far easier logistically than some of the other items, such as climbing K2, so I set my sights on that one. I was already a gym rat, hiker, and mountaineer so I had fitness on my side. I just needed to convert that fitness into running.

    I found a solid training plan for beginners, mixed it up a bit to account for my climbing plans/mileage, and then stuck to it. I told people I was doing the marathon in order to have accountability. I got up through 23 miles in training on a solid 10 minute per mile pace and felt ready for race day. Race day came and things went really, really well - for 17 miles. Then the wheels came off, my legs cramped horrifically, and I hobbled it in for a 4:30 finish. Seriously disappointed in my performance, but loving the experience, I signed up for another race 8 weeks later. I held the cramps off a little longer, but they still hit, and I didn't improve much.

    I worked for the next 3 years on training harder & smarter. Reading books on how to improve my training. Finally in 2010 I broke through the barrier, cut my time down to 3:35 and qualified for Boston. Then the ultra and trail bug hit in 2011 and I haven't looked back. I love lacing up my shoes early on a rainy morning, throwing on my hydration pack, and knowing I am going to be out for 6, 8, 10+ hours. The solitude of the trails, the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other, the companionship of a trail partner ...

    Could I have gotten to the same place if I had started with 5ks or 10ks? Perhaps. But it wasn't the road for me, especially when I didn't start running until much later in life. We each have our journey. I'm thankful I started mine when I did. My only wish is that I had discovered my love for running earlier.

    1. I have no issue with what you're saying here, nor what you did. My ONLY issue is when people feel the pressure to run a marathon before THEY really want to. The idea that you're not really a runner until you run a marathon doesn't make sense to me. When someone is ready, for they're own reasons. I'm 100% behind it. And the truth is that I've trained many novice runners to run marathons successfully - But first I try to get a very clear view about WHY they want to do it. You were clearly bitten by the bug. But many times it doesn't go so well. And when you compare the number of people who run one marathon to the numbers who continue to run regularly there is a discrepancy that I believe is telling.

    2. I think the question of want vs. compelled is an interesting one. I have heard friends say they really want to run a marathon. And then when I talk it through with them it's more that they feel like they should run one. While I understand that feeling, I encourage others to tap into what they want to do vs. what they feel they should do.


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