Next month a starting gun will fire in Hopkinton, Massachusetts and send a sea of runners on a 26.2-mile journey to a finish line on Boylston Street. It will mark the 116th running of the Boston Marathon. Boston is a relatively young event considering that Greek soldier Pheidippides ran the fabled inaugural marathon in 490 B.C. when he ran from the town of Marathon to Athens to report that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon.
Relatively small fields of runners competed in the marathon until the running boom of the 1970s. The Boston Marathon, the most prestigious road race in the world, didn’t top three-hundred runners until 1964. The Boston Athletic Association turned away 30,000 entrants at the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996, and 38,708 runners still ran the race. No doubt, such a crowd would have dumbfounded John J. McDermott of New York, who emerged from a field of fifteen runners to capture the first B.A.A. Marathon on April 19, 1897.
More than 500,000 marathon finishing times were recorded by marathonguide.com in 2010, compared with USA Track and Field’s estimate of 25,000 finishers in 1976, a clear indication of magnitude of growth in the sport.
The casual observer may consider distance runners as fitness eccentrics; however, to the long-distance runner the marathon is the quintessential challenge. The sport gained acceptance over the years, partly because of its exposure, there is a marathon in nearly every major city in the world, and coverage of celebrities who participate in the races. When seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong ran the New York Marathon after his first retirement from professional cycling in 2007, he said it was the hardest physical thing he’d ever done. At the post-race press conference Armstrong said, “In twenty years of endurance sports, triathlons, cycling, even the worst day on the Tour, nothing was as hard as that, and nothing left me feeling the way I do now.” Not that cycling a 2,200-mile course that snakes through the Pyrenees Mountains and French Alps is a cakewalk, but it puts the marathon in perspective.
Several years ago I set out to debunk the myth that an athlete had to be superhuman to run a marathon. In “The Untrained Marathon” I described my preparation, which paled in comparison to previous marathons where I would train so hard that I’d line up on race day with injuries caused by over-training. I completed the marathon, but I paid the price in pain. The experience gave me a newfound respect for elite runners who maintain sub-five minute miles the entire course. More importantly, I gained an appreciation for the mid and back-of-the-pack runners who earn the right to be called a marathoners.