Among autumn’s sporting rituals there is one tradition that fills me with mounting dread: the return of marathon season. If you’ve been to the gym or attended a cocktail party recently, you know what I mean. Chances are you’ve bumped into a newly devoted runner who’s all too happy to tell you about his heart-rate monitor and split times and the looming, character-building challenge of running 26.2 miles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a slovenly couch potato who abhors exercise. I’m an avid runner with six marathons under my New Balance trainers. But this growing army of giddy marathon rookies is so irksome that I’m about ready to retire my racing shoes and pick up bridge.
According to Running USA, about 430,000 Americans ran a marathon last year, an increase from just 25,000 in 1976 *. Next month, 40,000 participants will tackle the Chicago Marathon, and about 36,000 will run in November’s New York City Marathon. The New York Times recently reported that the wannabes who get turned away from the big-city races—New York got 90,000 applications—have resorted to buying spots on the black market. As the ranks of marathon runners swell, I have to ask: What’s the point?
Today, the great majority of marathon runners set out simply to finish. That sets the bar so low that everyone comes out a winner. Big-city marathons these days feel more like circuses than races, with runners of variable skill levels—some outfitted in wacky costumes—crawling toward the finish line. The marathon has transformed from an elite athletic contest to something closer to sky diving or visiting the Grand Canyon. When a newbie marathoner crosses the finish line, he’s less likely to check his time than to shout, “Only 33 more things to do before I die!”
It wasn’t always this way. In 1970, when 127 hearty souls lined up for the inaugural New York City Marathon, the marathon was the province of a few masochists dumb enough to try to run as far as most people commute by car. Back then, Americans who ran took running seriously. The icons of the era were Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, a couple of guys who happened to be the best marathoners in the world. Now, P. Diddy and Oprah spark tons of media buzz for finishing marathons in lackluster times. American record-holder Deena Kastor, who won the 2005 Chicago Marathon in 2:21, is completely anonymous.
The democratization of the marathon began in the early 1980s. The success of books like Jim Fixx’s The Complete Book of Running inspired mass “Just Do It” participation. As the popularity of marathons increased, the speed of the race slowed to its current snail’s pace. In 1980, the average finish time for a male marathoner was 3:32, according to Running USA *. Today, it’s more than 4:20. In 2003, the start time of the New York City Marathon was moved forward an hour earlier, in part to grant thousands of stragglers extra hours so they could finish before sunset.
Aside from an elevated sense of self-worth, what do marathoners get from their efforts? There’s no doubt that a lot of people train for marathons to get in shape. But the human body is just not designed for such high-mileage running. As a result of their crash course in distance running, a preponderance of marathoners suffer repetitive-use injuries like stress fractures, tendonitis, and shin splints. It would certainly be healthier for inexperienced joggers to run fewer miles at a faster pace.
Perhaps more troubling, the slow-marathon outbreak has created a host of new health hazards. Slowpokes face the risk of hyponatremia, or overhydration. This is caused when a runner consumes too much water, diluting the body’s electrolyte balance (and potentially leading to a heart attack) unless he consumes a sports drink like Gatorade to replenish the depleted sodium. Slow runners are particularly at risk because the body loses sodium as it perspires. The longer a runner is on the course, the more electrolytes they’ll sweat out. In the past decade, according to the Washington Post, at least four runners have died from drinking too much during a marathon.
Marathons might not be good for your health, but they are certainly good for business. A boatload of races have sprung up to assist would-be marathoners in their quest for mediocrity. The Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, for one, has bands performing every mile to keep bored runners entertained. Maybe if people ran faster they wouldn’t need Zeppelin cover bands to keep boredom at bay.
Running was once a purist’s sport—you needed only to lace up your shoes and hop out the door. No longer. During a recent run in Central Park, I dodged groups of marathon trainees festooned with heart-rate monitors and space-age breathable fabrics that looked like they’d emerged from some NASA lab. Along with this profusion of gear, a constellation of coaches, massage therapists, chiropractors, and other gurus now peddle services to the marathon masses. In New York, the Bliss Spa offers the “Cold Feet” treatment, a one-hour procedure that “uses alternating hot and cold therapies to help circulate and deflate aching, swollen feet and puffy ankles.” Two groups that Bliss says deserves this kind of pampering: marathon runners and pregnant women.
In many ways, the slow marathon is the perfect event for the American athletic sensibility. Just finishing a marathon is akin to joining a gym and then putzing around on the stationary bike. We feel good about creating the appearance of accomplishment, yet aren’t willing to sacrifice for true gains. It’s clear now that anyone can finish a marathon. Maybe it’s time we raise our standards to see who can run one.
Correction, Sept. 22, 2006: This article originally and incorrectly attributed two statistics about marathon runners to USA Track & Field. The statistics came from the group Running USA. (Return to the corrected sentence.)