Summer Olympics: All About Track & Field

All About Track & Field

Track and field is such a wide-ranging set of disciplines with so many different competitions that it could be a multi-sport event like the Olympics just itself. From running fast to running far to jumping to throwing things, track and field has a little bit of everything. You can divide the track and field events into any number of categories. I came up with five that I like: sprints, long distance running, jumping, throwing and combined.

How Does Track & Field Work?


Sprints are relatively simple events. Sprinters line up and go as fast as they can until they hit the finish line. Because sprints are so short, how well a runner starts is very important. As a result, there are a lot of false starts — when a runner begins moving before the starting gun is fired (no bullets) — and these can be frustrating for viewers and runners alike. Within this category are the only team events in track & field — the relay race. During relays, a team of four runners each run a distance consecutively with a baton that must be passed from one to the next. Whichever team finishes first, wins.

Medium and Long Distance

From around 800 meters (two laps around a starting track) to 10,000 meters (25 laps) to marathon distances (26.2 miles) and above (yes, there’s a race longer than a marathon!), races become much more tactical. The winning strategy is not just to start running as fast as you can for as long as you can. Instead, runners carefully watch each other and decide what to do. Runners who know that, all things being equal, they can run the last half lap faster than anyone else in the race are content to see the race go slowly at the start. Runners who don’t have that final kick, as it’s called, want to push the pace early, hoping to tire out the better finishers.


How awesomely simple do the Olympics seem sometime? How far can you jump? How high can you jump? What if we give you a giant stick to launch yourself off of? What about if you have to jump three times in a row? Who invented this and why do we like it so much?


There may be no better connection between the modern Olympics and the ancient Olympics than the track and field throwing events. Wrestling may be the sport most associated with the connection between the two, but for my money, there’s more in common with throwing events and actual ancient warfare even than wrestling. And, after all, that’s what the Olympics have been for so much of their history — warfare by other means. Throwing events are judged purely by distance, although there are strict requirements for how to throw the apparatus in each event and these rules lead to illegal throws quite often.


There are two types of combined track and field events. Some are multi-discipline events like the Heptathlon and Decathlon, where athletes compete in seven or ten different sports. Others are single events which combine elements of the previous four categories. Hurdling races are sprints or medium distance track races during which runners must leap over a series of evenly placed barriers. The steeplechase is a more novel race where runners must navigate a variety of obstacles including some involving water. Fun!

Why do People Like Watching Track & Field?

Each event and each category of events has its own potential appeal. Sprinting is a pure thrill — it’s no coincidence that these athletes are billed as the fastest people on earth. Sprints are bite-sized highly rewarding snacks. Middle and long distance races are more tactically interesting to watch. There’s sustained suspense throughout the race and the sprint at the end, when it comes, is more exciting because of the time you’ve invested in watching the event. Jumping events are amazing in part because they are so highly specialized. It’s rare to see a high jumper also do the long jump or the triple jump. Each jumping event has its own technique and rewards its own body type. Talking about variations in body types, that’s one of the main joys of watching the throwing events. It seems as if the object these athletes throw has some type of formative power over their bodies. People who put the shot (shot putters) are giant berserker-like humans while javelin throwers are shaped more sleekly, like the javelins themselves. The multi-discipline events are cool for exactly the opposite reason. What kind of person can do all seven or ten of these things well? What should their body look like? Finally, the hurdling and steeplechase events are amazing because they require such precision. If a hurdler gets even a split second off, they’ll hit one hurdle and then the next. The margin of error is so small and recovering from a mistake is almost impossible.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?


There are individual 100, 200, and 400 meter races as well as team relay races for four athletes each running 100 and 400 meters.

Medium and Long Distance

There are track races at distances of 800, 1,500, 5,000, and 10,000 meters. Outside of the arena, on roads, there is a marathon as well as 20 km and 50 km race walking events!


There is a long jump and a high jump event. There is the pole vault, which is like a high jump event assisted by the use of a long metal stick. Finally there is the triple jump event which is judged just like the long jump but which requires competitors to hop and skip in a particular way before taking off on their final jump.


What do we get to throw? There are four objects. The discus is like a frisbee but heavier and smaller. The javelin is basically a spear. The shot put is a freaking heavy boulder. Finally, the hammer, the least well known of the throwing events, is a metal ball on the end of a wire. WHOA!


The Heptathlon and Pentathlon are the two multi-sport events. There are hurdling events at distances of 100, 110, and 400 meters and a 3,000 meter steeplechase.

How Dangerous is Track & Field?

There have been some famous track and field injuries. These happen most frequently in the sprinting events, where athletes move so explosively that their muscles sometimes explode or in the combined events where it is possible to mistime a leap and smash into an obstacle. All in all, most of the Olympic track and field athletes will make it out unscathed.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Track & Field?

This is almost too big of a question. Taken all together, track & field is by far the biggest sport in the Olympics. There are 141 gold medals to be had! The only glaringly messed up thing about track & field comes from distance and quantity. In hurdling, women have a 100 meter event and men have a 110 meter one. What, that last 10 meters was going to kill someone? Men have a 50 km race walk in addition to their 20 km one whereas women only have the 20 km. In the multi-discipline events, men get ten sports to play with while women only compete in seven.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Track & Field is from Friday, August 12 to Sunday, August 21.

Read more about track & field on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Triathlon

The triathlon is a modern Olympic event which combines three sports – running, swimming, and bicycling — into a single exhausting package.

All About Triathlon

The triathlon is an exhausting combination of open-water swimming, road bicycling, and running. Triathlon athletes perform these feats back to back with no rest between. In fact, the transition periods between the swimming and the biking and the biking and the running are timed. You won’t see any casual drying off or stretching out between disciplines!

How Does Triathlon Work?

The triathlon begins with a mass of competitors on a beach. When the race starts, they all run into the surf and begin to swim out to open water. This type of swimming is very different from swimming competitions in a pool. For one thing, there’s a lot more jockeying for position, and it’s not uncommon for triathletes to get elbowed or kneed or kicked. Second, in anticipation of the biking and running events, many triathletes use special swimming strokes that leverage their upper body strength and save their leg power for later. After the 1,500 meter swim (almost a mile) triathletes sprint up the beach to a station where their bikes are waiting. They’ll quickly don helmets and get moving. The bike race is 40 km (25 miles) on roads. Although it is not allowed in some triathlons, in the Olympics the creation of pelotons or large groups of riders where drafting is possible, is allowed. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for a large group of the competitors to finish the bike ride at roughly the same time. This puts an emphasis on the last leg of the race, the run. The final discipline is a 10 km (6.2 mile) run. Whoever finishes first, wins!

Why do People Like Watching Triathlon?

The triathlon is a surprisingly (at least to me) modern event. In this format (swimming, biking, running) it was invented in the 1970s in California. That actually makes some amount of sense. I’ve always associated the triathlon with fitness, a much more modern focus than the versatility focus of the “modern pentathlon”. The idea of a grueling combination of events that rewards the strongest person with the most endurance who is most able to endure the pain of exhaustion is a distinctly modern phenomenon, as is the enjoyment of watching it. One small side benefit of watching the triathlon is the dress. Since it is easier to run and bike in swimwear than it would be to swim in bike gear or running clothes, everyone pretty much just wears their swim suits throughout the whole event, creating subtly discordant images of elite athletes wearing seemingly the wrong type of athletic clothing.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

The triathlon just has a women’s and a men’s event.

How Dangerous is Triathlon?

The most dangerous part of this event is the open-water swimming. There are a lot of unintentional or partiallytentional elbows, knees, punches, and kicks that get thrown as the triathletes try to make room for themselves to swim comfortably. Organizing the race so that the most physically punishing section, (the run,) is last guarantees that triathletes will pound their joints into submission, but that type of damage is long-term and unlikely to show up in Rio.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Triathlon?

Perfect – same race, same number of athletes for men and women.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Triathlon is from Thursday, August 18 and Saturday, August 20.

Read more about triathlon on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Modern Pentathlon

All About Modern Pentathlon

The Olympics are a human tradition that goes back to ancient Greece but they’re also very much a product of late 19th century Europe. No event expresses this modern origin better than the Modern Pentathlon, a combination of thoroughly upper class Victorian European activities.

How Does Modern Pentathlon Work?

The modern pentathlon combines five skills into a single event: swimming, show jumping on horses, fencing, running, and pistol shooting. Scores are accumulate throughout the first thee skills: a 200 meter freestyle swim, a show jumping exhibition, and a epee fencing tournament. The cumulative score from those activities gets turned into a ranked list which defines when each athlete starts the final combined run and pistol shooting competition. This combined competition requires athletes to run 800 meters, shoot five targets, and then repeat four times. The genius aspect of using the earlier standings to stagger the start of the combined competition is that the person who finishes the run/shoot first is the overall winner. Another clever aspect of the modern pentathlon is that athletes are paired with a horse randomly 20 minutes before taking part in the show jumping competition. This is a far cry from normal equestrian events when athlete and horse practice together, sometimes for years before the Olympics.

Why do People Like Watching Modern Pentathlon?

One of my favorite stories about sports that I’ve learned over the past few years comes from David Epstein’s book, The Sports Gene. In it, he describes “the big bang of sports bodies” that happened during the 1930s. Before that time, the people who ran sports on a national and international level believed that there was basically an ideal body for sports (unsurprisingly a medium sized European man) and that a person possessing that body should be the best at virtually everything. The modern pentathlon clearly stems from that time. Because we now know that there’s an ideal body type for swimming (long torso, big hands and feet) and that it’s different from the ideal body type for running (long legs, very small torso), it’s in some ways extra entertaining to watch a sport that forces people to compete in different sports and rewards versatility.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

The modern pentathlon is confusing enough with its five components, that it’s a relief to know it only has two events: men’s and women’s.

How Dangerous is Modern Pentathlon?

Well, let’s see. Swimming is pretty safe, as is running. The shooting is done with lasers, not bullets, so we’re good there. Fencing with epees is going to leave some marks, but no real damage should be done most of the time. Nope, the most dangerous sport in the modern pentathlon by far is the show jumping. Anything on a horse, particularly jumping over barriers, is dangerous! You can get pretty hurt falling off a horse and the pentathlon turns up the difficulty level by asking athletes to compete on well-trained but unfamiliar horses.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Modern Pentathlon?

Perfect — 36 men and 36 women.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Modern pentathlon is from Friday, August 19 to Saturday, August 20.

Read more about diving on the official Rio Olympics site.

The best sports stories of the week 7.7.15

Now that the excitement of the World Cup is beginning to die down, it’s time to empty my inbox of some amazing non-World Cup articles from the past couple weeks. Our first two articles are serious journalism about how sports can be an enormously positive part of living in restrictive environments. Our second two articles are lighter fare, concerned with the junction of sports and words. Enjoy all four of them.

Thriving in a Barren Land

by Jere Longman for the New York Times

One of the reasons why soccer is the world’s most popular sport is that it’s so universally easy to play. All you need is a field, a ball, and some friends/opponents. But what if you live in the Arctic and there is no grass, only tundra? And traveling so expensive that you can only reasonably find opponents once a year? Well, you’re going to have to improvise…

Assis, the chief referee, stood at the front desk of the Frobisher Inn, using a pair of scissors to make yellow cards and red cards from construction paper.

“Think FIFA does this for the World Cup?” he said, smiling.

Occasionally, travel in Nunavut called for extreme alternative transportation. In 2011 and 2012, a soccer team from the village of Igloolik traveled about four hours over ice to Hall Beach, riding in an oversize sled called a qamutik, pulled by a snowmobile and bundled in winter gear and caribou skins.

[Soccer] helped provide a year-round activity, a sense of community, a connection to the outside world and a distraction from social problems like alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual abuse and the alarming suicide rate.

Run on Sentence

by Rick Maese for the Washington Post

In this second story of the week, we enter an environment even more forbidding than the arctic; prison. In a handful of Utah prisons, sport is being used as the basis for rehabilitation. And it’s working.

[Kurtis Hunsaker] initially spurned treatment behind bars. [He] said he’d “rather pull my toes off with pliers” than attend AA meetings. He attended the initial Addict II Athlete meeting last spring and for the first time felt a sense of control. In contrast to programs that encourage patients to surrender to the addiction and call upon a higher power, he was in charge of his own workout, had an outlet for the pent-up emotions and anxieties and was part of a team. And perhaps just as important, he finally had something to look forward to each day.

Most games in prison have the familiar rules with minor wrinkles: In Ultimate Frisbee, for example, when a disc hits the fence, it sets off an alarm in the control room and is therefore considered a turnover; and in softball if the bat comes into contact with a person, the game is automatically over.

Where Ott and Orr Are Most Valuable: 15 Across, or Maybe 7 Down

by Victor Mather for the New York Times

They’re obviously nothing compared to living in the arctic or being in prison but for many of us, New York Times crossword puzzles are the toughest part of our week. One thing that makes them ever so slightly easier is the frequent reuse of some short, vowel-heavy names. Often, these are athletes whose crossword puzzle notoriety has outstripped their athletic achievements.

Of course, there is no conspiracy of delusional Ott-loving crossword constructors. Mel has gained his fame because of his last name, which is short and starts with a vowel. The clunky “DiMaggio,” with its double G, is much less useful to a crossword creator.

The Real Reason Americans Call It ‘Soccer’ Is All England’s Fault

by Tony Manfred for Business Insider

While we’re on the subject of words, if you grew up a soccer player and fan like me, you may have developed a slight inferiority complex about calling the sport “soccer” instead of “football” or “futbol.” Read this article and hold your head high evermore.

The interesting thing here is that Brits still used “soccer” regularly for a huge chunk of the 20th century. Between 1960 and 1980, “soccer” and “football” were “almost interchangeable…” [After 1980] British people stopped saying “soccer” because of its American connotations. So, no, it’s not wrong to call it “soccer” if you’re American.

Raising athletes to win, serve, and live

Sports are at least as big a part of raising children in this country as religion or civics. Kids spend hours every day playing sports and the way they see adults handle the everyday drama of sports helps to each them how to handle the real dramas of growing up. This week we have three stories about raising kids in and around sports. We’re going to hear from a former major league baseball player who has recently begun coaching his children’s t-ball team and from the family and friends of a young athlete who took her own life. We’ll hear about the army’s newfound devotion to women’s lacrosse and why their focused on that sport.

Confessions of a Major League T-Ball Coach

by Doug Glanville for the New York Times

Former baseball player Doug Glanville walks the line in this article. It’s tricky to write comedically about children — if the snark has even a hint of mean-spiritedness in it, the whole article will fall apart at the seams. I don’t sense snark at all, only love and appreciation for the absurd.

Base running is a little more straightforward, even though it can create moments I have never seen or imagined before in my life. The other day, we had three runners on third at the same time. After first trying to sort it out, I thought, “No big deal, let me see what happens when the hitter puts the ball in play.” So he did, and two out of the three ran home. Not bad.

T-ball is subject to a range of delays that have nothing to do with rain. Nor do they come from pitching changes or from challenging a call with Instant Replay. No. Our catcher went off to the Port A Potty; another one of our players was shaken up after being engulfed by his own teammates (eight apparent shortstops trampled him to get a ball hit near the pitcher’s mound); a couple of other players found the joy in knocking each other’s hats off at second base — until they found themselves disoriented in the evil and boring outfield.

Why Does the Army Care so Much About Women’s Lacrosse?

by Jane McManus for ESPNW

The image you might have in your mind of women’s lacrosse is that of a genteel sport played by young ladies. Don’t be tricked by the skirts that the players wear, they are ladies, but they’re the kind of ladies that will shove you to the ground and sprint over you to score a goal. That’s exactly the kind of people the army needs as they continue to open more combat positions to women.

The Army believes there is a crucial relationship between those two things — an athletic background and being a soldier. As the military prepares to allow women on the front lines of combat in 2016, there is an immediate need for strong, tough women from within the Army’s ranks. And, in a philosophy often mentioned on campus and believed by MacArthur himself, the Army believes athletes make better soldiers.

The data seems to support the basic premise held at West Point: that female athletes possess critical tools that would make them ready for the front lines of combat. Lacrosse is the next frontier for pulling good athletes to the academy

Split Image

by Kate Fagan for ESPN

This is a brutal article. It tells the story of Madison Holleran, a successful multi-sport athlete who recently died by suicide. As much as her family and friends would like there to be an answer to why and what we can do as a society to prevent other people from doing the same, there just isn’t. Depression is a nasty disease and it can strike anyone, anywhere. What follows here is some of Fagan’s writing about the impact of social media on young women’s lives. It’s not an explanation for suicide but it is something that we can improve. 

Madison was beautiful, talented, successful — very nearly the epitome of what every young girl is supposed to hope she becomes. But she was also a perfectionist who struggled when she performed poorly. She was a deep thinker, someone who was aware of the image she presented to the world, and someone who often struggled with what that image conveyed about her, with how people superficially read who she was, what her life was like.

Everyone presents an edited version of life on social media. People share moments that reflect an ideal life, an ideal self… With Instagram, one thing has changed: the amount we consume of one another’s edited lives. Young women growing up on Instagram are spending a significant chunk of each day absorbing others’ filtered images while they walk through their own realities, unfiltered… She seemed acutely aware that the life she was curating online was distinctly different from the one she was actually living. Yet she could not apply that same logic when she looked at the projected lives of others.

What are ideal conditions for a marathon?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was watching the Boston Marathon this year and the announcers talked about how difficult the chilly, drizzly weather was for runners. I thought that weather would have been good for running. What’s up with that? What are ideal conditions for a marathon?


Dear Cathy,

The weather for the Boston Marathon this year was between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit with light rain and a 14 mph ESE wind. That’s not ideal, but mostly because of the wind. Temperature and wind are the two main factors that effect running with precipitation a distant third. These factors affect elite runners and normal runners (if we can call anyone who is able to run 26.2 miles, normal) differently. We’ll go into each one of the factors separately but for the TL:DR crew, the ideal conditions are cool, dry, and depending on the course, either still or with wind pushing the runners from behind.

When I think about my ideal temperature for running, I think of a nice day somewhere in the high 60s. Not hot enough to be uncomfortable but not cold enough to make you want to bundle up or hang out inside eating Cheetos and watching TV. It turns out that I’m wrong, or at least, people who run marathons don’t share my Cheeto eating proclivities. The ideal temperature for marathon running is pretty much what we had for the Boston Marathon this year. According to the New York Times the best temperature range for marathoning is between 41 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. For every five degrees of warmth above that, elite marathoners slowed down by an average of .4 percent. The effect of heat on normal runners is around double that on elite runners, perhaps because “slower runners spend more time on the course, and the temperature generally rises through the day. Or it could be because slower runners tend to run with a larger pack. A tightly clustered group of runners generates heat and blocks it from dissipating.”

Wind is, perhaps, even a bigger factor than temperature. As you might expect, running with the wind at your back makes you faster, while running into the wind makes you slower. What you might not expect is that the effect is not even. Not even close. A headwind slows down a runner much, much more than a tailwind helps a runner. Many marathon courses have runners moving in all four directions over the 26 miles. When running on one of these courses, unless you were to get freakishly lucky and have the wind change direction to support you four times during the day, you’d be better off having no wind. The Boston Marathon is not like that — its course is pretty much a straight line traveling Northeast from Hopkinton to downtown Boston. This means that the wind is going to be a constant battle or boon all day. A few years ago, Geoffrey Mutai won the race with a time of 2:03:02 which would have smashed the World Record but wasn’t eligible because he was running with a tailwind of 15 to 20 miles per hour the whole way. In fact, the Boston Marathon is not eligible for World Records at all because it only travels in one direction. This year, that ESE wind was neither a true headwind or a tailwind. For most of the race, it would have been simply pushing runners left and forcing them to lean a little to keep going straight. Over the final five miles or so though, the course goes a little bit closer to due East where the wind would have been mostly a headwind, slowing the runners’ progress.

Precipitation, unless it is severe enough to threaten footing, or in Boston this winter, the ability to see over the snowbanks, is normally only a factor because of its effect on how people experience temperature. All the studies that I saw on temperature and marathon running actually weren’t about temperature, they were about “WGBT” or “wet bulb globe temperature.” This is one of those measures, like wind chill or heat index that attempts to more accurately measure what the weather feels like in a single number. Precipitation makes it feel colder, whether it’s rain on an 85° day or snow on a 30° day. On a day like this past Monday, when the raw temperatures were already ideal for marathon running, the rain was an unnecessary distraction. If it had been 10 degrees warmer, the rain would actually have helped the runners.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

What is sportsmanship? When is it appropriate?

Mirriam Webster defines sportsmanship as “fair play, respect for opponents, and polite behavior by someone who is competing in a sport or other competition”. Sportsmanship is an interesting concept. In some ways, it’s like obscenity according to the Supreme Court. When faced with trying to “categorize an observable fact or event, although the category is subjective or lacks clearly defined parameters” you sometimes just have to say that you “know it when you see it.” We all know, of course, that this type of definition is not good enough. Different people view different things as obscene or not obscene and the same holds true with sportsmanship. I grew up playing soccer, just like lots of other people, but I gravitated towards playing defense and over time turned into someone who stayed in the starting lineup despite being slower than most of the other players by doing the little treacherous things, like knowing exactly how long I could hold a player’s shirt before I would get called for it and understanding exactly where to place my body so that an opposing player would stumble over it without attracting attention. I thought that type of infringement was breaking the rules but not breaking the ethic of the game. In other words, I thought I was still showing good sportsmanship. An attacking player would be more likely to try to draw a foul by taking a dive or feigning injury. I always thought that was bad sportsmanship but now that I view soccer as an observer and not a participant, I can see how people might have varying opinions. Sportsmanship is an important concept because it defines the cultural (as opposed to rule-based) norms of a game but it is hard to define and varies from sport to sport and participant to participant. In the past couple weeks, I’ve read a few articles on the topic of sportsmanship that I enjoyed and would love to share with you. I think they create a compelling conflict within and between sports.

Sportsmanship Captured at NCAA Cross Country Championships

by Alison Wade for Runner’s World

This article represents almost a control case for our investigation of sportsmanship. It’s a classic human interest story that lauds athletes who stop and sacrifice themselves to help an injured or disabled competitor. It’s actually more balanced than most, in that it points out that there is an NCAA rule against helping another athlete and by doing so, excuses some of the other runners in a video of the incident who did not stop to assist the falling runner. Still, there is no criticism of two women who do stop to help the fallen runner, quite the contrary.

“It does not surprise me at all that Kate would do that. She is all about team and loves the sport,” wrote Minnesota coach Sarah Hopkins in an email to Newswire. “She saw someone struggling and tried to lend an arm to get her to the end. This was her first national meet, and I am sure that somewhere in her head she thought how awful it would feel to not finish, so wanted to keep anyone from feeling that.”

Is Competitiveness Poor Sportsmanship?

by Sarah Barker for Deadspin

In this article, Sarah Barker discusses several incidents including the one described in the previous article and asks a few important questions: Could media (social and traditional) be driving athletes to help each other even at the cost of their own disqualification to their team’s detriment? Why does it seem like women are disproportionately in the news for showing this type of sportsmanship? Barker, a runner herself, gives us the benefit of her own experience to answer these questions as well as sharing answers from some of the runners and cross-country coaches she reached out to.

Sportsmanship has been a way to ensure that no one goes too far to win, that individual competitiveness doesn’t pass into the realm of cheating or impeding other runners. It’s been about fairness and honoring the efforts of all competitors, but has not, in the past, gone so far as to sacrifice one’s own result to help another runner.   Spectating at a girls’ high school cross country race in the early 2000s, a competitor collapsed right in front of me. Though apparently uninjured, she lay on the grass, sobbing, as scores of runners streamed by. I must say, it felt cruel not to reach out and help her up, but as I bent toward her, a race official appeared and warned me she’d be disqualified if I did so. Some of the other runners urged her on as they passed by, but no one stopped. Eventually, she pulled herself up and carried on. That was just one of several such instances at the same meet.

Volvo Ocean Race: Sportsmanship on the High Seas

by Aaron Kuriloff for the Wall Street Journal

This is a similar article to the first one. It absolutely praises the sailers who went off course during a race to their own detriment to provide assistance to a competitor’s boat who ran aground and was in distress. [The article is worth going to, even if you don’t read it, for the crazy video that captures the power of the ship running aground on a reef as well as the amazingly calm demeanor of the crew as they respond to mitigate the damage.] What I find most interesting about the way the author writes about this, is how clearly he describes the cultural clarity within sailing of going to a competitor’s aid. It seems obvious to me from reading this article, that no one involved with sailing would ever write an article arguing against doing so like TK did in the context of running. A basic rule of the sport and of the Volvo race: Never leave a competitor in danger… “There’s a code amongst thieves out there,” said Ken Read, who skippered PUMA Ocean Racing’s il Mostro team to a second-place finish in the 2008-09 Volvo. “One minute you’re trying to beat the guy at all costs, the next you’re his life raft.”

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.

— — —

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.