Today, the great majority of marathon runners set out simply to finish. That sets the bar so low that everyone comes out a winner.He points out that the number of marathoners has risen from 25,000 in 1976 to about 430,000 last year and that the average finishing time has risen from 3:32 to 4:20. His argument seems to be that many people are doing the marathon for bragging rights, but that simply finishing isn't really an accomplishment worth recognition and that people not willing to do the work to run a respectable time should just stay home or concentrate on shorter distances. He throws in some concerned comments that it is also bad for them and that injuries are common, but I don't for one instant believe that the article was written out of concern for the misguided penguins waddling along at the back of the pack.
While 430,000 sounds like a huge number, the total U.S. population is 295,734,134 so less than 0.15% of the population completed a marathon last year. Many of them ran more than one and even more had also run in previous years. The reality is that despite the growth of running, only a fraction of a percent of the population has ever run a marathon. So, if simply finishing is setting the bar low, it is still a bar that very few even attempt to hurdle.
So, do I rate the accomplishment up there with the elite athletes of the world? Never. I take great satisfaction that I've completed the marathon once, but I'd never put myself in the same universe as the good runners who run the distance at paces that I can't even run for 100 meters. Heck, my friend Jim runs the marathon in 2:42 which is a pace that is 2 minutes per mile faster than my best 5k race time. And as amazing as he is, he is still 35 minutes off of the world record time.
Another point is that a trained athlete might think that I was loafing along when I ran the marathon in 5 hours flat. That might be a leisurely pace for a 3:30 marathoner, but what isn't apparent is that for me, it required running at more than 80% of my maximum heart rate for 5 hours. I don't look down on people who walk either. I know people whose heart rate is hammering along just from walking. Some people may be loafing and taking it easy, but you can't really judge the effort based solely on the pace. The heart rate tells the real story. I know people who whisper and snicker when they see a fat person in the gym. I've never been one of those people. I have a great respect for them and the effort it takes to make a positive change in their lives. In many ways, it is harder for them than it is for someone who has been athletic and fit for their entire life.
But I think that the lure of the marathon is that simply finishing IS a big accomplishment. Sure, most people could do it. But most don't. Not only don't they do it, but they possibly couldn't do it, and many probably can't imagine ever even wanting to do it. I know. That is where I was at until a last year.
A typical sedentary american can't just go out and finish a marathon. It took me over 4 years of regular running before I reached a level where I could attempt to run a very slow marathon. Initially running hurt. It didn't feel good but I did it because I had high blood pressure and was getting enormous. But a funny thing happened. It became easier and started to feel good. The discipline trickled over into other parts of my life. It became easier to control my eating when I realized that eating junk food was undoing the benefits and efforts of running. I started reading books and magazines and learning about the sport and how to train properly. I entered a race for heck of it and enjoyed the experience. I started doing a long run each week and discovered that after a certain point it felt like I could run forever. I finally started to see a marathon as a possibility and a challenging goal that I wanted to reach. Even then it took over 6 months and several injuries to reach the goal. While I wouldn't expect the recognition of the elite athletes I think it is a worthy goal that requires significant preparation and dedication and a love of running.
Do all of the penguins diminish the accomplishments of the elites? Before I seriously took up running, I had no idea who the big names were in distance running. Now I do and I'll wager a bet that all 430,000 marathon finishers last year also know and have a monumental respect for what it takes to run fast. Far from diminishing the accomplishments of elite athletes, the growing ranks of runners has elevated the popularity and visibility of those elite runners so that more people than ever before know who they are. Not only that, the growth of the sport and business of running has enabled those athletes to make a living off of their running. Not only can they win prize money, the top marathoners also benefit from sponsorship deals from companies that are paid for by the legions of regular people that run non-competitively. Some also earn a living training fast and slow runners alike.
In the end, you also have to realize that competition is tiring and can suck the enjoyment out of an activity and not everyone wants to or can be fast. When I race, I try to go as fast as I can. But if I didn't enjoy running, I'd stop. Running is a basic, primal activity that cleanses me and unleashes a basic joy. It tunes my body up and makes the rest of life easier in comparison. As I run along a trail with my dogs I share their excitement to just be moving and to have a body that allows me to glide along as the world passes around me. It's one of the few times I can just be in the moment and at peace with no cares in the world.