Are marathons worth it?

by Dave Munger

It's 10:00 on a beautiful Sunday morning in California. To my left is some of the most spectacular coastline America has to offer. I'm walking along a road on Point Lobos that is ordinarily packed with cars on days like this, but today, thanks in part to my $135 entry fee, the road has been closed to traffic.

There's only one problem: I should be running, not walking. Over the past year, I've spent hundreds of dollars on running gear and race entry fees. I've logged more than 1,600 miles training for this event, including nearly 1,000 miles in the past four months alone. I've lost over 35 pounds and steadily improved my speed and stamina. Why can't I make my body do what I've trained it to do?

Dozens of runners pass me on either side, each of them experiencing varying degrees of misery similar to my own. Most of them, like me, have traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to get here, spending $500, $1,000 or more to participate in this event, the Big Sur International Marathon. Like Boston, New York, Paris, and Berlin, Big Sur is a “destination marathon,” a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is so beloved, many runners return year after year.

IMG_0068 The race was run on May 1 this year, but Big Sur's 4,500 spots for marathoners had already sold out last October. Other races sell out even faster. This year's Boston Marathon, despite strict qualification standards, sold out in 8 hours. The 2011 Marine Corps Marathon, which tours the monuments of Washington, DC, sold out its 30,000 spots in 28 hours.

While I'm a better-than-average runner, I'm by no means a competitive athlete. My best finish ever was fourth place, in a 5-kilometer race that only had 74 participants, many of whom were walking the entire course. I'm certain that there are several hundred runners faster than me who live within 50 miles: When I do well in a race, it's either because those guys aren't racing, or they're racing elsewhere.

Last year, over 500,000 runners completed a marathon in the U.S. alone. Nearly all of these runners had absolutely no chance of victory: The 625 marathons held in 2010 yielded only 1,250 slots for victors (male and female). To encourage more runners to participate, many races offer a variety of other awards: Age-group winners, a master's division for runners over 40, awards for runners above a certain weight, for runners who live in snowy climates and so have limited opportunities to train, for relay teams, even for best costume. But even when you account for all these awards, only a tiny fraction of competitors actually wins anything.

No, the runners in all these races are rarely actually competing against the other runners. Most runners have only one opponent: Themselves. Once you've run one marathon, you need to run another one, to see if you can do better. The PR — personal record — has become everyman's definition of a “good race,” whether he finishes in first or three thousand and first.

The quest for a new PR can lead runners to spend hundreds of hours training, and thousands of dollars on gear and services designed to help them trim a few minutes off their previous records. Running shoes now routinely cost over $100 a pair, and Mizuno this weekend cracked the $200 barrier with its latest offering. Supposing these new shoes actually make you faster — a dubious proposition — does it really make sense for an average runner to buy them? This runner isn't going to win any races regardless of what shoes they wear. Even if they set a new PR, what's the value in that if it doesn't actually reflect improved conditioning?

It's now 10:14 a.m. The race course has left the coast and heads up one final hill before the finish. I've been running (with the exception of a few walk breaks) for nearly three and a half hours. My $170 GPS watch tells me that my pace, which earlier in the race had been faster than 8 minutes per mile, has now slowed to worse than 10 minutes per mile. After 25 miles of running, I'm in uncharted territory: The most I had run previously was 22 miles. I stop at an aid station to get a cup of water, allowing myself to walk for 60 seconds while I gulp it down. I start running again, telling myself that I won't slow down until I reach the finish, just over a mile away.

If all most runners hope to gain from a race is a new PR, isn't the whole business of road racing a rather narcissistic enterprise? Perhaps, but on any given Saturday, there are five or more road races within an hour's drive of my home, just north of Charlotte, North Carolina. Most of these races are 5-kilometer runs, usually put on for the benefit of a charitable organization. This past weekend, races in my area benefited Batten disease research, women's cancer research, a food bank, a community college, and a day-care center. If a small race has 200 entrants and charges a $20 fee, that could mean thousands of dollars for a local charity. If organizers can leverage runners' selfish goals to raise money and awareness for their cause, then perhaps it all balances out.

My GPS watch tells me I've run 26 miles, but I've yet to see the official 26-mile marker on the course. I've noticed that my watch is often off by as much as two tenths of a mile in races, so this doesn't surprise me, but it has led me in less stressful times to consider buying a new watch that not only tracks my location by GPS, but also by counting steps. This can be more accurate in certain situations when GPS satellites are out of line-of-sight contact. It can also be much more expensive. Finally I arrive at Mile 26. Just 0.2 miles to go, and I will have finished my first marathon. I try to pick up the pace for a sprint to the finish line, which looks suspiciously like the starting line I left over three and a half hours ago. I know that the official race photographers will be snapping photos as I cross the line, so I raise my arms in “victory” as I finish, in a time of 3:37:55, good for 354th place. Later I recreate the pose for my dad so he can take a cheaper version of the same picture.

IMG_0087A few days after the race, the race organizers email me a link to a site where I can preview my official photos — and download them, for a fee, of course. There I am, crossing the finish line. There I am, looking strong in the early part of the race, with the waves of Big Sur crashing to the shore in the background. But I'm most intrigued by a photo taken around 10 a.m., on Point Lobos. I'm walking, not running, and the look on my face is somewhere between exhaustion and despair. That photo, more than any of the other professional photos or the ones I took myself, captures what it's like to run a marathon. I had never pushed myself as hard in my life, even during those hundreds of miles in training. It's a feeling I've never experienced before, and one I don't want to experience again in a race, but it left me with an almost overwhelming desire to be stronger than that, better than that, and damn the cost.

I wish I could say the feeling was unique; it's probably not. Indeed, it's probably a feeling most runners get in most marathons. There's almost certainly something better that marathoners could be doing with all that time and money. Running a lot of marathons, in fact, may not even be good for your health—while the research on the effects of long-distance running is mixed, it stands to reason that a more moderate workout regime puts much less stress on the heart. While many races benefit charities, they also feed for-profit companies like The Competitor Group, which manages the wildly popular Rock-N-Roll series of marathons. Surely there's a more efficient way of getting resources to people who need them.

In America, marathoning is a rich person's sport. There's certainly no way my stepbrother Mark, who I've discussed here before, could afford it, even if his health permitted it. My brother's situation, for me, is the strongest argument I've yet encountered for ending this whole business. So far I haven't succumbed, though. I'm registered for another one in Colorado next month. Maybe I'll get a PR.