Why would anybody run a marathon?
The day before the UK’s biggest annual running event, the Virgin London Marathon, I read an article in the Guardian that asked this question with a fairly exasperated air. Whilst expressing admiration for those who attempt it, Alice O’Keeffe left us in no doubt about the general foolishness and vanity of the increasing popularity of marathon running as a ‘thing’.
Essentially, she implies, it’s fine for elites, and as an expression of supreme athleticism it sort of makes sense—but for the rest of us…? O’Keeffe is suspicious of why we wouldn’t rather do a spot of gardening and then stroll to a tea shop for some scones, as a much more civilised way of breaking a light sweat. (Full disclosure: I also like scones.)
Actually, I get it. I’ve been asking myself a similar question for almost as long as I’ve been running. Recently, my long runs have been getting longer, and the days have (occasionally) been getting hotter, and I’ve been experiencing more than a few mornings when the thought of what’s on the training schedule for the day has made my heart sink a little—or sometimes rise, in a flutter of concern about whether I can, in fact, do it.
So why am I routinely putting myself through this entirely voluntary exercise of pain, discomfort, tiredness and inconvenience? Whether it’s a marathon, a 150-mile three-day expedition through a desert, or a weekly 5k parkrun—what is it about running hard, or fast, or long that compels some people?
O’Keeffe thinks it stems from anxiety:
“…fear and confusion about bodies. Who and what are bodies for, in our post-industrial era? The economy values them primarily for their ability to consume. Those of us who work in desk jobs treat them as vehicles for our brains, ignoring their needs and wasting their potential while we tap away at keyboards and snack on biscuits. The temptation is to compensate for this neglect by pushing them too far – punishing them, even – in our leisure time.”
I think she has it the wrong way around.
21st century lifestyle has evolved so that in one sense, our bodies are no longer ‘for’ a great deal—we don’t haul sacks of grain, hew out coal, or scrub our clothes clean by hand as a matter of course any more, much less hunt our food or travel only on foot. Much of life is remotely activated, powered by information via electricity. But we are still beings incarnate: we have a tactile, sensory experience of the world. I have a physical response to my environment.
Fact: my day job does involve tapping away at a keyboard. My physical inputs are somewhat muted during those hours. Putting on my runners and getting outside, sensing the adrenaline build, allowing mundanity to shake off and be replaced by deep breaths of air, different landscapes, feeling the stretch of my muscles and energy rinsing through me as I pace along paths and trails—this is joyous activation, not some existential crisis, or atonement for the sin of modernity.
I love to run. I love how I feel after I’ve run. I love knowing that in every day, no matter how busy or complex, how dry and draining, or full and interesting, there will be a space for my body to wake up, and to be.
I am not a fast runner. I may not actually ever run a marathon distance—the jury is still out on that for this season; it may be too much of a training burden to be within tolerance for reasonable life balance right now. I find long distances difficult, and because I don’t run fast, they take me even longer than most!
Long runs, by which I mean the kind of distances you do when you are marathon training, are tiring. They involve blisters, chafing, and sore muscles, as well as careful measures taken against overheating, dehydration, over-hydration, being not too far from a loo at the right moment… and probably a host of other things I haven’t encountered yet.
This kind of training does feel different to the more daily kinds of running, like a quick few miles around the block, or the adrenaline rush of interval training, or a shared run with a friend when pace and distance don’t matter, and you’re just having a chat. Long distance running is maybe not for everyone—maybe not even for me. But I’m enjoying the stretch of trying it out, of the different level of solitude and headspace that running for three or more hours provides, and of the strength of resolve required to undertake a run like that.
Whatever comes up on my schedule each day, the bottom line is that I love to run—there’s nothing of punishment, guilt, or self castigation about my hours outside. I hope that every runner feels the same.
Like many others, my thoughts this week are with Matt Campbell’s family and friends, after his tragic death during the 2018 London Marathon.
Running streak total today is 484 days, 2031 miles. #runeveryday