Running used to come with street cred. You got the head-clearing glory of those pre-dawn miles and plenty of fitness prowess was conferred upon you for it. Now, it seems everyone who laces up their sneakers is upping the ante and training for a full-blown marathon. When did running 26.2 miles become the brass ring of fitness? And should it be?
“I feel like everybody does marathons now,” observes Jess Underhill, a New York City runner, coach, and founder of Race Pace Wellness. “Most of my clients are working towards marathons, and if they’re not, they’re on the fence about it.” If you’re a runner, you’re a potential marathoner, the thinking goes.
The numbers reflect that sentiment. According to Running USA, in 1980, 143,000 people finished marathons in the United States; in 2011, that number rose to 518,000. In New York, about 15,500 more pavement-pounders finished the ING New York City Marathon in 2011 than 10 years earlier. And while the country debuted 550 new marathons between 2000 and 2012, getting a spot in one is often like trying to score a ticket to see Lady Gaga at MSG.
As more and more people cross the finish line, median times are getting slower. “In the past, it was more hard-core, serious runners finishing marathons,” explains New York Road Runners chief coach John Honerkamp. “Now, it’s the masses. It’s a bucket list item.”
So how did the marathon of elite athletes become the brass ring of bar-stool bragging rights for the rest of us?
Of course, general interest in running as a sport and social past-time has been increasing, and the masses of people taking it up (especially women, who were barely represented in the sport as recently as the ’80s and now outnumber men) want to have something to work towards.
More specifically, runners and coaches tend to point to the growth of charities using the races as fundraising tools. “It increases the accessibility of the races and markets them to people,” says Meghan Reynolds, who co-owns Hot Bird Running with Jessica Green. “Everyone wants to do good, and this way you can give to charity and do something good for yourself.”
And, of course, there’s a cool-kids-club effect. “People are inspired by their friends and family who’ve completed marathons,” Underhill explains. “They think ‘Well, if Sally can do it, I can do it.’”
The positive effects of the marathon boom are obvious—lots of people setting tough goals for themselves, meeting challenges while getting healthy and fit, and building community. But is there a downside?
“Some people run their first road race as a marathon, and I think that’s crazy,” says Honerkamp, who recommends starting with a race like a 5K and gradually increasing your race distance as you become more experienced.
Most seasoned runners and coaches agree, because running newbies tend to underestimate the stress the training will put on their bodies and don’t spend the time to build mileage gradually in a smart, safe way.
Reynolds and Green say that many of their clients come to them because they tried to train on their own, or too quickly, and were injured. “We believe everyone can run and achieve that distance, but it’s a lot on your body. We always say, ‘You have to respect the distance!’” —Lisa Elaine Held