The Mysterious Intrigue of 26.2

I have yet to meet a runner this century who hasn’t been asked whether they’ve done a marathon—and if not, when they are going to. Because all runners do marathons, right? If you haven’t run one yet, then surely it’s just a matter of time, right?

I did my first marathon 23 years ago. Back then, people used to ask, ‘Where did you come in?’ because in the early 1990s, the marathon was still seen as a race against a field of opponents, not against time or the distance itself.

No one asks that now. The non-running public has realized that the answer—7,350th, 32,006th—is likely to be meaningless. It won’t matter whether you ran sub-three or walked the whole way in seven hours: once you’ve got that medal round your neck you’re a hero in their eyes.

In the minds of many runners, the marathon has a special status. It’s a journey that takes us far further than the 26.2 miles we pound out on the road. It tests us in a unique way, posing a question that cannot be answered until the finish line is reached. It is the rite of passage into real ‘runnerhood’.

Or is it? I’ve been wondering lately whether our reverence for the marathon distance has caused us to bestow upon it a holy grail status it doesn’t merit. Is it really more admirable to have completed a marathon, regardless of time, than to have channeled your efforts into a shorter event and smashed your PB?

For running coach Jeff Gaudette (runners, the answer is an emphatic no. ‘I strongly believe that the marathon is too much of a focus these days,’he says.‘Specifically, there are many beginner runners who have no business trying to run a marathon.

I’d advise new runners to consider very carefully whether running a marathon is the right choice for their short- and long-term development. ’For me, the real issue is more a question of whether it’ll reap you the greatest rewards. For two runners I know, Helen and Chris, training for a marathon within a year of first donning their trainers nearly ended their running careers. The long runs, the injury woes and the everyday exhaustion took a toll, and though they finished the race, they fell out of love with running along the way and it took a few months for them to regain their mojo.

I know other newbies who, giddy with enthusiasm, rushed headlong towards the big one before having run so much as a 10K. A couple were felled by injury, while others achieved their goal but then hung up their running shoes altogether, perhaps feeling that there wasn’t anything else to achieve. Or maybe they’d just pounded all the fun out of their running and saw no reason to carry on.

I counter the popular view that progressing as a runner means having to move up to the marathon. Progressing from a 2:05 half marathon PB to a 1:46 finish, as Helen has since her one and only marathon, is to my mind a greater measure of improvement than battling round 26.2 miles.

Don’t see this as a diatribe against beginners taking on the marathon.

At the risk of sounding like a parent telling their children,‘Don’t try to grow up too fast—you’ve got your whole life ahead of you’, all I’m saying is there’s no need to rush to the marathon start line.

And besides, veteran runners are equally guilty of getting fixated on the mythical distance. ‘Too many runners just jump from marathon to marathon,’ agrees Gaudette.

‘Not only does continually training for the same goal race distance lead to burnout, but it’s also one of the reasons runners fail to improve, year after year.’

There are a lot of positives in training for shorter distances. It consumes less of your time and energy. And it doesn’t mean putting all your eggs in one basket: if a marathon doesn’t go to plan, it’s back to the drawing board for a good few months before you can give it another try—compare that with a 5K or 10K, when you could be back on the start line in a week or two. It also gets you ready for a big race.

And guess what? At the end of your race plan, you’re going to be  in a far better position to move over, not up, to that marathon. Should you want to, that is.

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