To the distance runner, the marathon is the quintessential endurance race, and its lure is as strong as the gravitational pull. Once in a runner’s mind has locked onto the marathon, it becomes a fixation.
A typical scenario begins on the bathroom scale with some lonely soul watching the dial spin through tens, even scores, of unwanted pounds before deciding to go for a jog. At the local track, he jogs a quarter-mile lap, and then walks for fifteen minutes. Two days later the jog increases to two laps, followed by a fifteen-minute walk. By the end of the month, he is jogging one-mile before walking. Six weeks pass and the distance increases to a one and one-half mile jog, and before he knows it he’s running three miles at a comfortable pace. The beginner discovers newfound discipline with his diet along with increased energy. Remarkably, he begins looking forward to going to the track.
One day he’s out shopping for a new pair of running shoes, and a brochure for a 5K grabs his interest. Figuring he’d already conquered three miles, another tenth of a mile seems a cinch. After completing his first organized race he’s psyched and begins conversing with more experienced runners and reads about 10Ks and 15Ks on websites and blogs. Next thing he knows he’s teetering on the edge of a 10-miler, which is within grasp of a half-marathon. Before the year is out, the half-marathon is in the books and running is an obsession. He broadens his horizons when he finds out that marathon season is right around the corner and can’t hold himself back.
The lure of the marathon pulls like a riptide and the beginner finds himself looking for a 30K to build confidence. After the 30K and a twenty-mile training run, he is still functional and thinks he has the marathon licked, which is a trap. A first-time marathoner can only learn from experience that the twenty-mile mark is the equivalent to the endurance halfway point of the race. In other words, the final six miles, 385 yards requires as much stamina, perseverance, and significantly more pain, as the first twenty. It is a lesson in humility.
After crossing the finish line, the first-time marathoner is faced with his hardest decision of his life—whether or not to run another. The answer typically evolves with time. Immediately after the race, the answer is, “No feckin’ way!” The following day it is, “Not likely.” A week later he is scouring websites for his next conquest, and begins training the following month.
There comes a point at which the marathon no longer satisfies some endurance athletes’ appetite for suffering and they seek tougher challenges, thus the ultra-marathon and triathlon were born. Casual observers think marathoners are unstable, but consider the ultra-marathon—a race that exceeds 26.2 miles, some more than one hundred miles. The “Ironman” triathlon includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile cycle and a full marathon. Incredibly, registration for some “Ironman” triathlons fill up in only hours and lines often form in the middle of the night for some popular races, reminiscent of camping out for Rolling Stones tickets back in the 1970s. The incomprehensible Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile California race, has grown from a single competitor in 1977 to ninety-six (eighty-one finishers) in 2013. Badwater competitors endure intense temperatures as they run from Death Valley to an elevation of 8,300 feet up Mount Whitney, past notorious places with names like Coffin Peak, Funeral Mountains, Dead Man Pass, and Hell’s Gate. As the great hockey goalie and Philadelphia legend Bernie Parent used to say, “Some fun, eh?”