[Last Sunday was the 30th anniversary of two of the greatest marathons ever run on U.S. soil, both in the same race at Chicago. The first was Steve Jones incredible wire-to-wire victory in 2:07:13. which still stands as the U.K. national record. The other was Joan Benoit Samuelson’s tough-as-nails 2:21:21, defeating Ingrid Kristiansen. Both were in the news again this week, Joanie because an illness kept her from her attempt to run 2:51 thirty years after she ran 2:21, and Jonesy for his tough-love comments doubting the value of mass participation in marathons. It seemed an appropriate time to dig up this post from six years ago, tackling that same question: should plodders run marathons? — originally published October 27, 2009.]
One of my regular running buddies, Kevin, ran a marathon last Sunday and finished bitterly disappointed in his time (2:58) and place (15th). He had trained for months to run sub 2:50, and had been on pace for the first half of the race and feeling good. Then the wheels came off. He struggled to maintain pace, suffered, but finished — ingloriously, as he saw it, and has been cursing the marathon ever since.
Oh man, I’ve been there. I remember the first time I ran Boston. I was in great shape, but for many reasons, the race didn’t go well. I went through the half marathon in 1:14, and then crashed and burned in the second half. I suffered — as much from shame and embarrassment at being passed by hundreds of runners, as from the damage I was inflicting on my muscles. I finished in 2:41, vowing never to run another marathon (I did run several more, eventually).
I couldn’t help thinking of this the other day when I read a piece in the NY Times concerning slow runners in marathons.
The article tries to stir up trouble by finding “hard-core” marathon runners who resent slower marathon runners, who, they say, devalue the marathon experience by completing the distance in six hours or more. The article begins with this juicy quote from a College cross-country coach:
“It’s a joke to run a marathon by walking every other mile or by finishing in six, seven, eight hours… It used to be that running a marathon was worth something — there used to be a pride saying that you ran a marathon, but not anymore. Now it’s, ‘How low is the bar?'”
That’s pretty harsh.
It’s true that more and more people run marathons with no intention of racing. As participation in longer races grows, the median finishing times have become much slower. The “middle of the pack” in many marathons is now around four hours, or over nine minutes per mile. Is that a bad thing?
I think it’s important to realize that a marathon is not a single event, but really many events happening simultaneously. For a minority of the participants, the marathon is truly a race — a competition among runners (and against yourself) in which the idea is to run as fast as you can. With this ambition comes the risk of catastrophe. It is one of the weird ironies of being a fast runner that no matter how poorly your run, and how bad your race, most of the people who know you will see your finish as a major accomplishment and will be baffled by your disappointment.
For the majority of runners in a marathon, however, racing is not the priority, and the race is run at a relatively comfortable pace. I say “comfortable” knowing that even a moderate pace is difficult to maintain over the marathon distance. It’s not comfortable after you’ve been out there for several hours. What I mean is that most runners don’t feel compelled to race a marathon; they are content to run it, and if they suffer, to accept that suffering more philosophically.
Where the NY Times goes seriously wrong, I think, is in focusing on the finishing time for a marathon. You can’t tell how hard someone ran by looking at their time. Kevin could have done the marathon at training run pace and run 3:10. For another runner with a different profile, 3:10 pace would have been suicidally fast. Who am I to say that a four-hour marathoner is or isn’t racing to do their best? And who are any of us to say that a five- or six-hour marathoner isn’t putting their heart and soul into a race?
Because there are so many abilities and agendas represented, the field for any marathon lends anonymity to the purposes of the individual runners and makes it impossible to detect who raced it, who ran it just to finish, and who laughed all the way. That’s just the way it is, and I think most runners accept the fact.
As for Kevin, right now he thinks racing marathons is dumb. Boy, is he right. But when it works out, and you have that really great race, it is a fantastic feeling. At such moments, the last thing you worry about is whether the course is staying open a few more hours for the plodders. Later, you’ll find that all but a few of your running buddies couldn’t care less about your time, or whether you raced your heart out or just ran to finish. You’ll know the difference, though.