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The Mystique of the Marathon

Date posted: Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Exploring the reasons behind the current running boom.

NYC Marathon

The past four years, I have turned the first Sunday in November into a mini-holiday. I wake up early, make 36-54 pancakes (according to the Aunt Jemima portions), and walk to my street corner with my friends to watch the New York City Marathon. There are multiple reasons why I love this spectacle, and the underlying principle behind all of them is that I am a runner myself. Oddly enough, this doubles as the reason why I am utterly confused by running as a sport for the masses. Why do so many normal people sign up to run serious distance races?

The answer to this question seems simple, but it is not.


If you have zero interest in marathoning, you may be unaware that we are in the midst of a distance running boom. Besides the fact that you may have seen more people wearing short-shorts, here is proof:

  • Over the last 25 years, the two largest yearly increases in the total number of U.S. marathon finishers have occurred in 2009 and 2010.
  • In 2005 the Chicago Marathon, which is held in October, filled up in May; last year, the same race, with its 35,000+ slots, reached capacity in 31 days.
  • In 2010 the Boston Marathon reached capacity in eight hours.

Such administrative problems are new to the running community—How can there be too many marathoners? wondered the disgruntled Boston rejectees, each of whom felt special in his or her desire to run that race—but the running boom is a phenomenon neither arbitrary nor original. It is actually rooted in the 1970s, when ABC televised the 1972 Olympic Marathon and U.S. runner Frank Shorter won it. Yes, you read that correctly: a U.S.-born (i.e. a non-Kenyan or -Ethiopian) actually won an international marathon.

Shorter’s victory capitalized on the minor running stir created over the previous ten years, when future U.S. Representative Jim Ryun became the first high schooler to run a sub-four-minute mile (1964) and Steve Prefontaine, a University of Oregon track star, unleashed his cocky personality and handlebar mustache on the running community, setting seven U.S. track records and inspiring a cult-like following that continues to this day. Once Jimmy Carter and Ron Burgundy picked up jogging as a hobby, running was officially thrust into the national consciousness. Suddenly it was plausible that someone other than a really skinny person could run a marathon.

The marathon itself is a modern creation based on the legend of Pheidippides, a hero of Ancient Greece who ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce a military victory. The moment he arrived, he proclaimed, “We have won,” and collapsed from exhaustion and died. I don’t know how much of this is believable (Pheidippides allegedly ran 150 miles in the two days beforehand, so why didn’t he die then?), but I recognize the story’s importance: it lends long-distance running a certain mystique (as does the fact that distance is the only type of running in which humans routinely outperform most mammals (which is why we can’t blame Shawn Crawford for losing the 100-meter dash to the zebra in Man vs. Beast)). And to me, nothing is key to running’s commercial success like the mythic element.

But I’ll get to that later.


The nonprofit organization Running USA has identified a handful of reasons for the boom, most of which revolve around the financial incentives and holistic benefits of distance running. “Marathon ‘mania,’” it reports, is “in response to the bad economy.” Now that people don’t have jobs and money, they have time to train for a cheap sport. Marathoning allows them to control their own success (since they can’t control the stock market!) and enjoy a sense of accomplishment in their personal lives that is devoid in their floundering professional lives. This is a concept that did not exist before the ‘70s—running a marathon as the logical internal response to external factors.

These reasons might be accurate, but are they valid? Casual jogging, wherein you throw on a shirt, shorts, and a pair of shoes and head out the door, is inexpensive. Marathon training is not. A typical training program lasts four-and-a-half months, and in that time, you need adequate shoes (probably two pairs), which retail for around $100, as well as season-appropriate clothing (moisture-wicking socks, shorts, pants, tights, shirts, vests, jackets, hats, gloves, and underwear). Nutrition—pre-run carbohydrates, during-run electrolytes, post-run protein—adds up, and if you travel for a race, transportation, lodging, and dining become major expenses.

And while it is always possible to skimp out on costs—to wash your smelly clothes every other day, to book a hotel room on the outskirts of town, to eat pasta the night before a long run and beans and rice afterward—what cannot be avoided is the increasing race fee. The New York City Marathon, whose course seems to double as a tour of the entire city but only takes you over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, through a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, up and down two uptown Manhattan avenues, into (and quickly of out of) the Bronx, and along less than half of the Central Park loop, now costs $196. In 1970, it cost $1, which is approximately the same amount of money I pay when I explore NYC—and every city I travel to—on foot.

One argument for accruing these expenses is the incredible feeling of elation one receives from the physical exertion of running. Running isn’t just an activity that is fun, we’re told; it is one that, in both a corporeal and a mystical sense, increases the quality of our lives. Although running does have the potential to offer great physical and emotional benefits (legitimate books have argued this), it can come with severe physical consequences—risk factors that doctors and fitness experts are, to their credit, quick to acknowledge. What these professionals are unable to do, though, is prevent the marketing campaigns that passively pressure marathoners to wrap their experience in an inspirational, feel-good story about overcoming a weight problem or a personal tragedy. These stories, often shared by those who gain entrance to a marathon by raising money for a charity, make people forget that marathon training leads to injury more often than not—66 percent, one recent poll found.

Such statistics spark the debate over whether or not the sport is dangerous, with critics referencing studies linking marathon running to leg problems and proponents pointing to the very low marathon fatality rate. But these miss the point. People get injured while training for marathons for a very specific reason: that it can be really, really hard. This is a reality, and it’s one that the running boom has been incredibly successful at masking.

Consequently, it is one that marathon participants can feel comfortable ignoring.


I worked at a specialty running store in New York City for over three years. During that time, I met hundreds of people who had signed up for a marathon (or a 13.1-mile half-marathon; Running USA notes that half-marathoning has reached a “hyper-mania”) without any idea of how to approach their training. They had just pledged their time and money to run 26.2 miles, but they had not run six continuous miles once in their life. How would they undertake this task without falling apart?

Seven years ago, I was one of those people. Being athletic my entire life did not change the fact that the consistent, repetitive pounding of pavement was likely to rupture my body’s joints and ligaments and tendons in a way they had never known, and I injured myself. Over the years, I grew to enjoy distance running, even though I continued to incur minor knee and Achilles’ heel problems that necessitated medical tests and physical therapy sessions. These setbacks cost me a fair amount of cash and always depressed me a little (but not a lot). This is the paradoxical nature of the sport: running became so fun that I did it so much that I ended up preventing myself from doing it. Maybe what I should have done was stopped distance running and started playing more pick-up basketball. Instead, I upped the ante by entering ultra marathons. This decision further classifies me as a vital component of the running boom. Yet I feel separate from it, like I don’t have the same mindset and goals and ambitions as those who comprise it. I feel like I’m observing it from the outside.

This is why things are confusing.


The fact that in 2010 three-fourths of marathon runners were college-educated and had a household income of over $75,000 suggests to me that an undeniable truth about distance running as it exists today is that it is an industry that, like any profit-driven business, exists to convince its target market that its product needs to be consumed. Race directors, athletic gear retailers, and athletic gear companies are preying off the upper-middle-class’s fascination with the intangibles of the sport. It’s not outlandish to assume that in 1980, when only 143,000 people finished a U.S. marathon, but did so in an average of 3 hours and 37 minutes, these people—those who were talented enough and who trained hard enough to run the race with substantial speed—were not lugging energy gels and handheld water bottles and wearing high-tech shirts with built-in iPod holsters on their six-mile training jogs. Many of these runners were training alone, in cheap split shorts and cotton tank tops. Technology has progressed naturally, of course, but it has done so in tandem with the demand for it.

Since 1980, the average U.S. marathon finishing time has risen about a half-hour every 15 or so years. In 2010, this puts us at 4:38. Speed will always be relative, and just as there will be professionals who run for the payday (rabbits, they’re called), there will always be runners whose quantifiable glory is simply their true passion. But if these groups cancel each other out, what we’re left with is a slow average marathon finishing time.

Part of the lore of running is that results are instantly measurable: you see your finishing time, and your success in a future race of the same distance depends solely on your work ethic (for instance, as I crossed the finish line of my first marathon, tired, cramping, and behind thousands of people, I laughed to myself about how much faster I would go the next time). The 4:38 average may be indicative of a running boom comprised of a lot of people who are motivated to complete a 26.2-mile feet-shuffle, but what, precisely, comprises the motivation? I think that in a somewhat similar way that running a four-minute mile became more about breaking psychological barriers than summoning pure athletic talent, the contemporary goal of finishing a marathon on the non-professional level has become less about doing something you wholeheartedly enjoy and more about attaining a seemingly mystical prize. (The four-minute-mile, of course, had stymied man for eternity, and Roger Bannister’s breakthrough was a testament to man’s athletic progress. Meanwhile, a half-million people now finish a U.S. marathon each year.)

This is why the most intriguing (and valid) reason that Running USA provides for people finishing a marathon is that they like to cross it off their “bucket list.” This cohort, I’ve found, is likely to express confusion over the fact that a runner (like me) has never run (and does not particularly care to run) the New York City Marathon. It’s the greatest best coolest most awesomest race in the world! The cohort holds a slight amount of contempt for a runner who has not yet entered—no, she needs to have already completed—a half-marathon, simply because she (my friend) is too polite to point out that she ran cross-country in college and isn’t yet comfortable making the drastic jump in race distance. The people of this cohort are also the ones likely to populate the new and burgeoning running groups of Central Park, where speed work consists of five charges up the modest 400-meter Cat Hill at an eight-minute-per-mile pace. Perhaps fueled by the Runner’s World feature, more and more people, it seems, are set on doing anything to earn the right to proclaim, “I’m a runner,” even if this so-called “right” is abstract and the idea that one “is a runner” is a construction.

It is partly because of this cohort, and partly because of my nature, that I have rebelled against such labeling. But while I like to fancy myself as not one of those gullible, well-off people who runs because it’s trendy (I mean, I don’t make nearly 75K), the truth is that I run, and spend more money on running, than almost everyone I know. The only reason I do this, though, is because I genuinely love running (and although this is true—I swear!—it is something I feel the need to remind myself of). I played rather competitive soccer in high school, and running fills the competition void while being far less expensive and easier to partake in than other popular endurance sports, like swimming (which I suck at), cycling (which is at least four times as expensive and time-consuming than running), and triathlon (which has a prickish subculture).

So I somewhat obsessively plan my training schedules, and I treasure the serene mindsets that come with long, solo days in the woods or on the treadmill. At the same time, I never read books, like Haruki Murakami’s self-indulgent What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, that purport to illuminate running’s metaphysical mystique, and I have no interest in Born to Run and the barefoot running fad. I throw away all my race medals because I find them overwhelmingly cheesy in their (misguided) symbolism, but I will gladly talk about workouts and splits for hours, even if such conversations always leave me a bit empty, a feeling that I believe is due to the fact that being a normal person distance runner with a competitive streak has made me highly self-conscious. After placing well in a 50K trail race in the spring, I realized A) how much more fun running is when you’re at the front of the pack and B) how much worse I would have placed if, that Saturday morning, the region’s best runners would have chosen to enter my dinky local race instead of the North Face-sponsored one across the river.

Why do I care so much about something that is so pointless?


What invigorates me about distance running are stories that investigate its cultural antecedents and ramifications. Two recent ones come to mind. The first is an examination of the mysterious death of the world’s most promising young distance runner, five-foot, four-inch, 110 lbs. Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru. Wanjiru set the half-marathon world record when he was 18 and won a number of marathons in the following years, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 races in London and Chicago. In 2010 he battled injuries but successfully defended his Chicago title. Then, in 2011, while embroiled in a love scandal, he got into a domestic dispute at his home Nyahururu and fell off his balcony. Was this a suicide? A homicide? An accident? No one is certain.

The article is smart and provocative and filled with nuggets of insight into Wanjiru’s running life, like how as a boy he ran 12 barefoot miles to and from school because he didn’t have shoes. But as a Westerner living through (and participating in) the running boom, I feel an odd disconnect with his tale because I view it as an inadvertent debunking of the myth of the distance runner. Wanjiru grew up poor, used his athletic talent as a means to better his life, but was unable to abate the corrosive powers of fame, no differently than so many of the football, basketball, and baseball stars we idolize in the U.S. Stripped to its core, the tragic drama becomes a familiar and thus tired trope.

The opposite is exposed in “B.Q. Or Die,” the recent Runner’s World article that inadvertently presents the most compelling argument in favor of the mystique of distance running. The piece focuses on a causal relationship between the Boston Athletic Association, which audaciously decided to make its qualifying times five minutes faster, and the runners its decision has affected. In this story, we learn of a fascinating subset of people of the distance running boom.

Because of its history (the oldest U.S. marathon) and standards (a stringent qualifying time), the Boston Marathon is arguably the most prestigious marathon in the world. There are people—a lot of them—ones with Boston Marathon-inspired tattoos and license plates and bumper stickers—who are terrified—horrified—that they will never run the race. Last year, during those eight hours in which the race was filling up, these people sat at their computers and clicked the “refresh” button, waiting for a confirmation page that never materialized. This left them in a state of (minor) despair. Based on historical precedents, they were led to believe that if they ran a qualifying time, which many had spent excessive amounts of time and money making sure they did, they would earn a race bib. So what happened to them was basically unfair. But if 20,000 people run a race, let alone one that has “grace” entry spots—the dirty little secret of the Boston Marathon is that you are eligible to run it if you raise enough money for charity—how exclusive can it be?

The article does not delve into the philosophical implications of these peoples’ mentality—the realization that the new qualifying times will either flat-out prevent them from running Boston or spark a “fool’s gold” training mission, wherein they devote even more time and money to their pursuit but still fail to qualify—but that is why we have subtext. What happens when a disembodied organization like the BAA uproots your life goal? You reach an existential crisis that belies reality. The truth is, at some point, practice and determination are immaterial to success. Your body is either built to run a 3:05 marathon (the new Boston qualifying standard for men ages 18-34), or it isn’t.

This shouldn’t matter, but we’ve made sure that it does.


It’s just another five days until my New York Marathon Sunday tradition, and I’m as excited as ever. When the (generally Kenyan and Ethiopian) world-class racers glide down my block at an average speed of less than five minutes-per-mile, I will be reminded of the grace of sport. When the professionals chug along en route to 2:18 finishing times, I will be reminded how little money they will ever make in their sport. When the sub-elites come through, on pace for 2:30s and 2:40s, I will be reminded of how slow I am. When the three-hour group rolls past, I’ll be wondering if I, too, look that slow. And when all the four-hour-plus marathoners plod on by, with friends and family cheering their magnificent accomplishment (can you imagine how weird it’d be if we did this for our friends’ rec league basketball championship game?), I’ll wonder if they’ll ever run again.

But here’s the real thing to wonder: when watching the marathon, will I wish I were running it?

No, but yes.

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Nathan Schiller is a founding editor of Construction magazine.

View all posts by Nathan Schiller →


  • Tony Glaser

    An interesting perspective . . . but I think it IS a cheap sport. As someone who has run Boston and NY in my mid-50s: I have never bought 2 pairs of running shoes in a season, let alone in 4 or 5 months, and I don’t pay $100; I do not buy special socks or underwear, never worn tights, and most of my running shirts come from the freebies at previous runs or from Wal-Mart. As for nutrition, I have never bought sports drink or special sports food in my life, and just eat my regular stuff – what’s wrong with pasta or beans and rice? Travel and hotel? Do a marathon in or close to your home town. Entry fees: yes, pricy for NY & Boston, not nearly as much for the smaller less prestigious races. And as for Sammy Wanjiru, being killed in apparent association with a domestic dispute is hardly evidence that he was “unable to abate the corrosive powers of fame”

  • Ellen Thoms

    I know people who have spent lots of money on the marathon. i live in New Jersey, and all the good races sell out so quickly, forcing people to travel far. I think it is still a sport for the masses though. Anyway I’ve met all different types of marathoners and I don’t think there’s just one type. Everyone does it for a different reason. Isn’t that the point?

  • http://www.nathanveldhoen.com Nathan Veldhoen

    Ellen has some good points. Weird, I am a runner…haha … but do I spend a lot of money on this sport…

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  • Ron A

    Good article. I love reading about running. You hit the nail on the head as to why I picked up running three years ago- unemployment. Lots of time and energy on my hands and a desire not to go down a road of complete sloth. Even after I got a fulltime job, I was still able to keep up my weekly mileage, to my own surprise.
    Yes, at its core, running is a cheap sport and a super easy-to-do one. Not only can anyone do it (in varying degrees, of course) but it can be done almost anywhere, too. So, the economy has a lot to do with our current running boom as well as the ease of entry. I’m afraid, though, that in folks’ haste just to complete a marathon they are using any means possible, including super slow running, jogging, even walking. Yes, they’ll get the finisher’s medal but they’re cheating themselves out of the most important part of the game- getting fit! That little hurdle does not come easy. It takes intense running, dieting, strength workouts and a real inner motivation. Once you have this part, in my opinion, it really doesn’t matter much whether or not you do the NYC Marathon.

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