How Difficult is Running a Marathon?

Dear Sports Fan,

I live in New York along the path of the Marathon. I enjoy cheering the runners on as they go by but I’ve never been tempted to train for a marathon myself. I’m wondering, how difficult is running a marathon?

Curious in Queens,

NYC Marathon
A lot of people run the NYC Marathon each year but that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult.

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Dear Carl,

That’s so cool that you live on the route of the New York City Marathon. I’ve heard from friends who have run it that they really appreciate the people on the route who cheer or set up their houses as giant stereo systems or in some other way enliven the long slog to the finish-line. I’ve never run a marathon, so I can’t write from personal experience, but it seems like a marathon is very, very difficult but accessible to most people who want to run one.

A marathon is a 26 mile, 385 yard race run by over half a million people each year. 48,000 people will run in the NYC Marathon alone! Most of these people are amateur runners, people like you and me, except that they for any number of reasons decided to train for and run in a long-distance race. Most of the runners don’t treat the marathon like a race; at least, not the kind of race you might have had as a kid when you and a friend ran to see who could reach the end of a path the fastest. For one thing, there’s no way that 48,000 people can start at the same time. The start of the race is highly regimented and staggered event[1] where the relatively small group of professional runners who actually have a chance to win start 25 minutes before the next wave of slower runners. No, most of the people who run a marathon are trying to beat only a personal goal they’ve set. Data, put together on by Rueben Fischer-Baum suggests that many are successful in this; instead of a smooth curve of finishing times, there are little spikes at even ten and thirty minute marks.

Almost all (98%) of the marathoners who start the race, complete the race. That’s very different from what would happen if amateurs tried to complete other professional sporting feats. An amateur, even a trained amateur, would have almost no chance of hitting a major league fastball, finishing a shift in hockey, scoring more than a fluke basket or two in an NBA game, or even just making it through a football play without a major injury. Then again, a layperson might have less chance of hitting a baseball than completing a marathon, but they’d certainly be less sore after trying. Just finishing something doesn’t mean that it wasn’t difficult to do.

The curious distance of the race and its history speak eloquently, if somewhat unreliably to how difficult it is. The marathon was invented as an athletic event in 1896 by some of the architects of the first Olympic Games who were searching for an event to catch the imagination of spectators and journalists. They recalled the Ancient Greek story/myth of an Athenian soldier who ran from Marathon to Athens to spread the news of a victorious battle over the Persians. The legend ends with the runner’s end as he dies of exhaustion after successfully delivering his message. There’s a lot of conflicting reports of this story — had he fought that day? did he follow the path of the road that was measured in 1896 to get the figure of 26 miles, 385 yards? or was it a shorter road? had he just run a 150 miles on another mission when he left on the 26 mile run that killed him? did he really die?

A very small percentage of runners these days die. There was an article in Time magazine entitled “Running a Marathon Won’t Kill You” that stated the death rate of marathoners as 1 per 259,000. Of course, that’s consistent with the 1 per 1 of the legend but I would suggest we just take that whole story with a grain of salt. Talking about salt, marathon runners today keep themselves fresh by eating and drinking all kinds of things during the race. The Huffington Post’s recent article on marathon nutrition suggested everything from specially created and marketed runner’s gels to gummi bears and marshmallows. Counter-intuitively, one thing that actually kills a marathoner once every other year or so is too much water, according to this article in the Washington Post. If you see someone in distress tomorrow, make sure to check how much water they’ve had before you offer them some more.

The popularity of marathon runners has brought on a slew of articles minimizing the difficulty of running a marathon. The New York Times ran an article a few years ago with the mildly obnoxious headline, “Plodders Have a Place, but is it in a Marathon?” In it they quote an experienced marathon saying, “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?’” This past spring the Running Blog of the Guardian surveyed runners trying to distinguish themselves from the increasingly common marathoners by performing feats like running seven marathons in seven days or running across the continental United States.

I don’t think the fact that many people can run a marathon suggest it is anything other than an extraordinary feat worthy of congratulations. Here’s two suggestions on how to show people just how impressive marathons are. First, have them tune in to ABC at around 11:30 tomorrow morning. The professional men’s runners will be nearing the end of the race. After 24 or 15 miles of running at a pace of under five minutes per mile, the runners will begin to sprint, raising their pace to around four and a half minutes per mile. After that, ask the skeptic to go run a single mile with you. If even that doesn’t work, you can break out my favorite fact about marathons, and one that I once lost a bet on. Ask your friend if they think a runner could ever beat a person on horseback in a race of this distance? Then show them the Wikipedia page for the amazing Man vs. Horse Marathon run each year in Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells which was won by a runner twice in the last ten years.

Happy running and happy cheering,
Ezra Fischer



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. As opposed to the finish, which sees many people staggering to the finish line, exhausted but victorious.

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