I love seeing the number 26.2 in bold on bumper stickers, written across T shirts and engraved on rubber bracelets. To be honest, I’m thinking about getting it tattooed on my wrist.
It’s a strange number, if you aren’t a runner. A lot of people, when I tell them I’ve run a marathon, ask me how far it is- which is funny, because the word “marathon” is supposed to describe the distance.
To be fair, in some cultures (when I lived in Singapore, for example) it seems that people used the term ‘marathon’ in lieu of ‘race’ or ‘run’. I ran a 10k over there and even the people hosting the event kept calling it a marathon run… However, the accepted definition among distance runners, the definition I grew up with, is 26.2 miles (just over 42 km).
Why? Because of a legend with some plausibility involving a Greek messenger, Pheidippides, who allegedly ran from Athens to Sparta to ask for help during an invasion. The Spartans were in the middle of a religious ceremony and were unable to help for a few days, so Pheidippides ran back to inform the people of Athens. I think then he ran to the Bay of Marathon (which literally means “field of fennel”) to tell them the news, then join the fight. Upon their incredible victory (the Athenians were heavily outnumbered but still managed to defeat the invading Persians) he ran 26 miles back to Athens to shout his famous last words- “We have won!”
After which he promptly fell over and died.
Of course now we all run marathons because, what, we want to prove we won’t meet the same fate? I’m fuzzy on the details of how this became the massive cultural phenomenon it is today, but here we are!
Many marathons were run with distances around 26 miles before the 1900s, but that’s when the modern distance became official. The marathon course for the 1908 Olympics in London was extended by 385 yards so the athletes would finish in front of the royal box, and that became the distance we use today.
That’s the quick and dirty version. Ultrarunner Dean Karnazes does the best job of telling this story in his book “The Road to Sparta“. So read that.
The marathon has so much history behind it I couldn’t do it justice in one blog post. From its origins in ancient Greece to its evolution into a semi-popular endurance event, so much ground has been covered. You have the success of elite athletes in continually bringing down the world record, the inclusion of women in running and endurance events, the training adaptations modern science has allowed us to discover, and the eventual inclusion of runners of all ages, shapes and sizes… The marathon is a world unto itself.
I love the marathon because it’s not just about who runs the fastest or who wins, it’s about finishing. Often it’s against beating your own times, fighting your personal limitations. It is a tough thing, yet people from all walks of life run marathons. From teenagers with lots of energy to great-grandpas with T-shirts reading things like “I ran this course 5 years before you were born!” Elite runners sometimes start a little bit ahead of the field, but at the end of the day, everyone starts and finishes in the same place, from the fastest in the world to people that jog at a snail’s pace.
People run for friends, family, community,
People run for themselves.
The marathon brings people together in a way that little else does.
It’s a feat of endurance, which as my coach used to say translates to everything you do in life. You get out of it what you put in.
When you run a marathon for the first time, you will change. It is a lot of running. I mean, even if you’re reading this as an ultrarunner who’s done 15 100 milers in the last few years, I’m sure you remember the feeling of finishing your first marathon.
First there’s the training. You cover at least a couple hundred miles over a few months, which may or may not be something you’ve ever done before. The training makes you appreciate your world. You learn to understand your body, learn how to work harder and grow stronger. You appreciate, the sights, views, sounds, and smells of wherever you’re running in a new way. The right music becomes something that makes you high. I think this is the feeling people are searching for when they get drunk and go clubbing- isn’t it great to know all you have to do to reach euphoria is wait for a great run?
You learn to push through pain, and how to differentiate the kind of pain that hurts you from the pain that challenges, then changes you. You are able to carry these lessons over into your daily life.
The training is half the beauty of it. Then there’s the event itself, a massive starting line or a small one, but a gathering either way of people about to submit themselves to the same challenge you are. These people, like you, are all running for a reason. They’ve all trained for this, as you have. You might swap stories on the starting line, you might just stand in companionable silence.
But you’re all there for the same beautiful struggle.
I am terrified of writing about the marathon. I worry I can’t breathe the right words into it, the words that will make you understand what running a marathon truly means. I worry that at the end of this post you will shake your head and sigh and wish me luck with my knees.
As I sit here still frustratingly in recovery, I worry that one day I’ll find out this isn’t my distance, after all. I worry that I’ll never qualify for Boston or New York, never break 4 hours, much less 3, never meet the goals I’ve set for myself.
But if there’s one thing the marathon has taught me, it is that worry has no place in my mind. All the worry and hype your brain tosses at you over the course of your life is just noise. What matters is the choices you make, the actions you perform, the work you put into things. I read once that there is no cheating in a marathon, because your body knows exactly what you have or haven’t done in training.
The marathon will test you. It will challenge you. Ultimately, it will change you. It will teach you to put the work in, to trust yourself, and eventually, to give the distance everything you have.
As the writer Hunter Thompson said,
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!'”