Lemmings?

 

The End is Near, or, "you got this!"

The End is Near, or, “you got this!”

I’m a big fan of cartoons, particularly the ones found in the New Yorker magazine.  Robert Mankoff drew a cartoon a few years back,  “What Lemmings Believe”, which showed lemmings going off a cliff and ascending skyward.  My marathon experiences are sometimes like that.

Pheidippides giving word of Victory, by Luc-Olivier Merson

Pheidippides giving word of Victory, by Luc-Olivier Merson

To runners, the legend of Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek’s victory over the Persians is familiar.  The battle took place in 490 BC (although they didn’t call it BC back then).  Pheidippides was said to have fought in the battle, then ran non-stop to Athens and collapsed and died after he delivered his message.  This was the inspiration for the creation of the road race called the marathon.  In 1896, the era of the modern Olympics began in Greece, and the marathon was run with Spyridon Louis winning in 2hr 58min 50sec.

Training for 1896 Olympics

Training for 1896 Olympics

John Graham, who belonged to the Boston Athletic Association and was the manager of the U.S Olympic team at that event, was himself inspired to create the Boston Marathon, which had its initial running April 19, 1897.  In the early days of marathon racing, the number of runners in this and other early marathons was small, numbering in the tens to hundreds per race.  The first Boston Marathon had 18 finishers.  Average times were quite fast, and have gotten slower as the number of marathoners increased.  Running USA, a non-profit company which is a joint venture of USATF and major long distance races in the USA, keeps statistics on number of marathon runners, median finishing times, and many other subcategories.  The most recent marathon reports shows that in 1980, of 143,000 marathon runners in the US, 90% were men and 10% women.  Their median finishing times were, respectively, 3:32:17 and 4:03:39.  In 2014, 550,637 runners, 57% men and 43% women, finished with median times of 4:19:27 and 4:44:19.  Since 1980, there has been a steady rise in the number of marathons in the US and the number of marathon runners.

Number of marathon finishers in the USA by year.

Number of marathon finishers in the USA by year.

What is the attraction for all these runners?  What were they doing before marathons got popular?  Will the numbers keep rising, or have we reached a plateau?  While I was not able to find reliable information explaining the phenomenon of ever-increasing participation in marathons, the trade site RunningUSA does an annual survey of runners which it sells for $159, and includes information from interviewing over 15,000 runners on topics such as demographics, running shoes and apparel, travel, and even sponsor recall.  From my personal experience, and speaking with runners I know, I can take some guesses.  The marathon is a premier event in many people’s minds, which takes guts and dedication to complete.  One who completes a marathon can, with justification, be proud of his or her accomplishment.  Marathons have become big city events, and get a lot of publicity, bring in money for hotels and restaurants, and show off the good side of most cities.  As marathons became more popular, and more of a mainstream athletic activity, more people knew someone who had run a marathon.  It became a sport that, like a ponzi scheme, fed on pulling more people into the fold.  The more people who run marathons, the more profit there is in running shoes, running clothing, GPS watches, books and training programs.  When marathons began selling out, the scarcity of the spots made them that much more desirable.  The fact that median finishing times have gotten much slower over the years shows that many people are joining in who are not elite athletes, but still have the desire to participate.  The marathon is marvelously suited to participation by people of different ages, abilities and fitness levels.  Training for a marathon, rather than being a solo venture, is often a group effort, and a very social one at that.

Struggling to finish Wineglass.

Struggling to finish Wineglass, 2013.

Left it all on the course.

Left it all on the course, Steamtown, 2012.

Yet, the marathon is a very demanding and grueling event.  It is run whether the day is warm or cold, dry or wet.  My first marathon, in Philadelphia, in November of 2008, the temperature did not rise above freezing, and there was ice on the ground at all the water stops.  So back to my initial thought, that to start a marathon, one needs a belief in oneself that is often unrealistic.  We train, but our training is mixed in with the rest of our daily responsibilities.  Like those lemmings, joining in the rush of the start of the race, one believes one will fly, when the sad fact is only a few truly do.  Most of us, myself included, will have a rough time finishing, and will, during the last few miles, ask ourselves why we are punishing ourselves so much.  But then, one crosses the finish line, gets a medal and a commemorative mylar blanket, and congratulations fly all around.  It is a very uplifting experience to finish this great race.  Shortly after the finish, in spite of how well or miserably I may have done, I start to think about my next one.  And, I’m back to the belief that as I start, I will fly….

 

 

 

 

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