(Image from fivethirtyeight.com)
I’m usually psyched to see a running-related piece show up on a mainstream news and opinion site. It provides a temporary reprieve for the feeling that I’m a lunatic engaged in a fringe activity. Also, occasionally the information is interesting or at least mildly informative.
So I was excited to see the headline for a story by Christie Aschwanden published a few days ago on fivethirtyeight.com titled “The 5K, Not The Marathon, Is The Ideal Race“. The site (which takes its name from the number of electors in the United States electoral college) was founded by statistician Nate Silver and is now owned by ESPN. Silver became a political and journalistic celebrity for his electoral predictions based on sophisticated analysis of polling data, most famously in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. I assumed that any article that appeared on the site would offer a similar level of analysis and insight to the burning question of choosing how far to race.
I was disappointed.
The article was full of folklore, references to questionable studies, and reliance on opinions from a few experts. In the end, the article concluded that marathons are more expensive, require more sacrifice, and don’t make you any healthier. The only reason for running marathons, the author suggests, is for bragging rights. Although she doesn’t use the term, she implies that marathons are merely examples of “conspicuous exertion,” or a way of signaling the runner’s status and athletic bona fides.
To me, this is a classic example of starting with a conclusion and then constructing an argument to justify the conclusion.
I’m no particular fan of marathons. I don’t believe that fetishizing the distance is a particularly healthy trend. Perhaps Aschwanden’s article and a similar recent article by Daniel Engber on Slate.com (“Don’t Run a Marathon“) should be viewed as helpful correctives to the prevailing cultural assumption that marathons are healthy, virtuous, and satisfying. Often, they’re not any of those things. Or, as a certain friend and veteran of many marathons likes to say, “marathons are stupid.” (FYI, this friend, who we’ll call “Kevin” to protect his identity, swore off marathons a couple of years ago and has been on the wagon ever since. He claims that he isn’t tempted to run another, but as he approaches 50, I can see that look start to come back into his eyes as he imagines the glory of dominating a new age group…). Anyway, I agree with the author of the fivethirtyeight piece that whatever it is that makes someone a real runner, it’s not running marathons.
But the problem I have with the piece and others like it is that it makes no serious attempt to really grapple with the reasons people choose to run hard events, or competitive events, or long, life-altering events, rather than convenient ones. People don’t run for no reason, they run for a variety of reasons, some simple and some complex, and like any other human behavior, people engage in it because they apply a calculus that convinces them that it’s worth it.
One common way to grapple with this is to assume that everyone runs for the health benefits. Certainly, health is one of the major reasons people exercise, and the modern running culture has been shaped by the hugely influential introduction of the idea of jogging in the 1960s. But jogging for health does not explain $35 entry fees for 5Ks, or $150 running shoes, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), or marathons.
People don’t run just to be healthy, just as people don’t sit down to a meal just for the nutrients. This seems obvious to me, and yet over and over again articles about the benefits of running in the popular media obsesses over studies that show runners live longer (or less long), that show that one kind of workout or another gives all the cardiovascular benefits in a fraction of the time, that offer shortcuts to the benefits while minimizing the suffering.
Sure. That’s all great. Unless it turns out that there’s some meaning and value to running that requires time and effort and yes, suffering.
It’s not elitist to point out that in running, as in most endeavors, you are likely to get more out of it if you put more effort into it. And maybe the reason that people choose to be stupid and run marathons is because the endeavor gives them a sense of purpose and accomplishment that they don’t get elsewhere. Who am I to judge?
In any case, I think what’s really stupid is comparing 5Ks to marathons using a set of criteria that leave out the reasons anyone would set out on such a crazy adventure in the first place. If you ignore the crazy, you’ll always conclude that no one should run a marathon. And that’s just the beginning. This false cost-benefit analysis will lead you to conclude that track races should be avoided due to their low return on investment ($$ per mile), cross country races are a bad choice because of the higher risk of turning an ankle, and let’s not even consider the diminishing returns of mountain and trail races.
When you get right down to it, everyone should be running 5Ks. A quick check of the local road race calendar suggests that everyone is already running 5Ks, as their number continues to increase.
Yes, marathons are stupid. They break your heart, as often as not, if they don’t break your body first. They demand too much time, too much sacrifice, and then when they’re all over, you wonder why you ever put in the effort for so little in return. Better to train hard for a 5K, like the author of the article says, and reap the benefits of being able to race every weekend if you want, and enjoy the party afterward, and then get something else done with your day. Obviously, 5Ks are superior. Obviously. Obviously.
You repeat that to yourself often enough and you’ll be able to ignore the little voice in your head that whispers that something’s missing.