Who Are the People Running Marathons?

A lot’s changed since my first marathon five years ago, except my feelings about the marathon.

Nearly five years ago, I ran my first and only marathon. In spite of having run regularly for most of my life, training for that marathon proved to be a huge challenge! Each and every long run beat me up, I was exhausted, and I got injured. I made it through the race, but just barely. At the time, and even years later, I chalked my difficulties up to being a newbie at focused training. I thought my inexperience with workouts and long runs alone could account for what I had experienced. But here I am five years later, now a seasoned middle-distance racer with many workouts and long runs under my belt and now I’m training for my second marathon. To my surprise, it is no easier. I am still struggling.

Most would agree marathon training takes a profound physical and mental toll. And yet, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like there are post after post showing joy-filled, glowing people reveling post-long run or race. Marathon participation is soaring; the most recent data from Running USA, the 2014 Annual Marathon Report, cites 2013 as a blockbuster year for marathons, in spite of the Boston Marathon bombings and several other large marathon cancellations. In the 1,100 marathons that were run in the US that year, all-time highs were set for male finishers (308,400 finishers), female finishers (232,600 finishers), and Masters finishers (254,300 finishers). I have many friends, serial marathoners, who vigorously extol the virtues of this iconic race distance.

So who are the people who can’t seem to get enough of the marathon? 

Poppy at the 2015 California International Marathon.

The Endurance Beasts

Some people are just physiologically suited to the distance. Our own Poppy, a two-time Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon, relishes the physical demands of the training. “My body really likes the training for a marathon and I seem to handle it well, which makes the process of training for one enjoyable,” she says.

For those like Poppy, the quest for self-improvement gained from race to race is also a big draw. She says, “I think I keep racing marathons because I still feel like I haven’t fully conquered the distance. So I keep going back to them, despite several of them having kicked my ass. There’s a stubborn part of me that won’t stop running them until I feel like I have fully executed one to the best of my abilities…I’ve put myself through quite the bit of physical and mental pain with some of my marathons, but for whatever reason I just can’t quit them. I guess it’s because I really do like running long distances.”

The Givers

For many, the symbolic aspects of racing the marathon surmount the physical challenges. Marathon running has become a major outlet through which to raise money and express support for charitable causes. Marathoner Lisa Kavanaugh, director of the Massachusetts CPCS Innocence Program and founder of its charity running team, Running for Innocence, says, “Discovering the parallels between my running and my work made the marathon experience that much more meaningful, and also inspired me to want to help form a team of other like-minded runners.”

For Christopher Marshall, who runs for the Boston Athletic Association running club and works for the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Team Momentum, running marathons started with the drive to get faster. Now, because of his work with the MDA, he runs for those who can’t. So do many of the runners who come to the marathon through his charity team. He says, “They do this because someone in their family may not be able to run, may not live to see age 30, or has already passed away. This is for those living with muscle disease!”

The Challenge Seekers

Others embrace the mental challenge. Pimento, who is gunning for a big personal best in her upcoming marathon, says, “It’s like a never-solved puzzle. You have pieces in your control and others out of your control. You always think you can put them together better, then you race and see what you got, get some new pieces and ideas to train differently, and want to try it again.”

Dill after one of her many marathons.

For Dill, the rigors of the marathon provide mental fortitude to handle other things in life. She says, “When you get to that low point and you come over it, you know you can come over anything. Every time I cross that line I remember that I am pretty damn tough and it translates in life.”

John Barrett, another member of the Boston Athletic Association running club, ran his 24th consecutive Boston Marathon last week. He says, “Running a marathon is about measuring yourself against others and yourself. Where am I relative to a decade ago? Can I still beat these 30-year-olds? At the end of the day, it is a competition.” He also loves the strategic elements of the race. “In a marathon, it is speed with endurance. So there is a lot of strategy such as when to push, when to pull back. Managing the low, to return to a high miles later.”

The Partiers

The camaraderie that grows between training partners can be a primary motivator. Barrett’s teammate, Christopher George, says, “I love to run and enjoy training for a marathon with my teammates. Yes, the training can get painful, but we are there to prop each other up.” The distance is also a testament to a runner’s dedication. Paprika, who recently competed in the 2016 Olympic Trials marathon, says, “It’s one of those events that requires full commitment, not just hopping in.”

Tea “celebrating” in the middle of her OTQ race.

The atmosphere of a specific race can carry people through. “During Boston, that run down Boylston is worth the 25.8 miles of suffering before it,” says George. “It is quite a thrill!” Tea, who also competed in the 2016 Olympic Trials marathon, agrees. “I love big city marathons and all the spectacle. Yes, they’re crowded, and expensive, and all that – but I love that it’s a big celebration. When I train for months, I want race day to be fun and, for me, part of that is the spectacle. The whole city cheering, the excitement that builds, the decorations…all the nonsense and fluff, I love it. It makes the race feel like a party. Most shorter races don’t have that, and my Sunday long run definitely doesn’t!”

The Externally Motivated

Some need a big goal like the marathon to keep them motivated to stay physically active. My own husband, Mr. Garlic, has seven marathons to his credit, though he claims to hate running. Why did he train for and run all those marathons? “I was attracted to the glory and the pageantry of it. It was the carrot in front of me, keeping me focused on staying in shape. I figured if I was going to do it, I’d do it big.”

imageAnd then there’s the food! “The appetite and increased deliciousness of food during the high mileage weeks of marathon training is great,” says Poppy. Pimento agrees, “Food never tastes as good as it does after a long run or a tough workout.”

I’ll grit it out through this second marathon because, for me, it represents the completion of a full circle. Years ago, training for my first marathon, I got interested in competitive running. That experience led me to attain athletic achievements I never could have imagined. This marathon marks a period in my life where I made myself into an athlete, and that became an important part of my identity. Soon I will embark on a new kind of training, a Sports Medicine Fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital. It’s an experience I imagine will bear some metaphorical similarities to the race I’m about to run. I can’t think of better preparation.

Garlic will run the Providence Marathon this Sunday, May 1st, 2016.

If you love the marathon, which type are you? If you don’t love it, why not? 

Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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      1. Thanks. I’m not sure toughing it out is the best description… but it was a learning experience for sure. Lots of work to do, mostly on the inside. Temps look good for sunday, maybe a little rain but overall forecast looks decent for you.

  1. The only reason I’d go back to do another marathon is that I’m a challenge seeker. I want to master this SOB of a distance 🙂

  2. The partiers right here!!!! I just ran my 2nd full and I love the crowds, the signs, the loud cheers… It makes the 18-20 weeks of training so worth it. Enjoy your race!

  3. I qualified for Boston and NYC marathons my first and only marathon (CIM in 2009). My goal that day was to complete 26.2 miles. I loved the long runs, the racking of miles, the camaraderie of the race. Goal completed, I intended to run these and others marathons with training (e.g., tempo runs, intervals, strength training, etc.)….only to be felled by injury. So two registrations down the drain and hopes dashed, it is now six and a half years later. The challenge of completing a marathon (even for this senior grand) is still intriguing. There is an allure to this distance that is hard to quantify. Or maybe, as you note, I feel left out because SO many people highlight their achievements in running marathons through social media? Should we celebrate10k’s? 10 milers? The challenge but also the strategy of seeing what I can do with this body at this point in my life is my carrot….

    1. I think the marathon holds a status in the minds of those in the general population as the distance for “serious” runners. I do think we should celebrate the other distances too – each of which has its own unique and wonderful set of challenges – many of which can be just as testing and require just as much hard work and dedication as the marathon.

  4. Great post 🙂 I am definitely the “externally motivated.” While running a PR marathon is great – more than anything I need to be on a training schedule!

  5. I love the marathon because I love running more than I love racing, and the marathon is a great way to enjoy the scenery and mind clearing meditativeness of a long run without needing to make myself uncomfortable for very long. I expect that body type and mix of slow twitch vs fast twitch fibers influence runners preferences for the marathon vs shorter races.