Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Are Marathons Worth It?

There is an interesting article on 3 Quarks Daily that asks "are marathons worth it?". It is definitely worth a read.

To excerpt parts of the article, the author writes:
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.
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?
A 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.
I disagree with his assessment. Running need not be a rich man's sport. Runnign can really be the cheapest of sports. There is no need for a gym membership. No need for expensive gear.
There are really only two things about running that cost money:

  1. You need is to buy a new pair of shoes once in a while. So you spend $100, or $130 in a good pair of running shoes twice a year.
  2. Race entry fees. It sounds like in America marathons cost more for registration than they do in Israel, but even so, how many marathons a year is a person going to run? 1 or 2? Sure there are some crazy people who will run 10 or 20 marathons in a year, spending way too much money on this, but most people do not.
I don't see the money being a big factor in running, especially considering that other sports are so much more expensive. Take up swimming and you have to pay pool memberships. Biking, you have to buy a bike, and replace parts regularly. Pretty much every sport requires the participant to purchase equipment, and many force you to join a gym. Running is relatively cheap - put on a pair of shoes and get out onto the road.

Regarding his point that runners are narcissistic, I would say that among the runners I know, very few are like that. Yes, some are. Some love to look at their picture crossing the finish line and revel in how good they look doing so. Personally, I like to look at the picture because it reminds me that I can do whatever I put my mind to. I can overcome the greatest of challenges. The marathon is a challenge that is beyond the human's normal abilities. The fact that I was able to complete it, and even complete it respectably (without collapsing and needing to crawl across the finish line), gives me a tremendous boost in other areas of my life. So yes, I like to look at my picture from the marathon, but it is because of what it motivates me to do and not because I like looking at myself.

Yes, some worry about every second and look for ways to shave off time wherever they can. Most runners that I know are not like that. Most take the challenge of the marathon as a challenge of a lifetime, they train their hearts out, they run the marathon and that's it. While many continue to run, with some always looking for the PR, most just want to run. they participate in marathons because it presents them with a challenge. Some need to look for a PR to get the challenge that motivates them, while others just want to run, and the paid entry is enough of a motivation. I have run 3 marathons in 2011 - I set my PR in the first of them, and the others I just ran to enjoy and to challenge myself again. Am I a better person because I ran 5 or 25 minutes faster than the previous time. Probably not, which is why most runners just want to finish.

Are Marathons Worth It? That is a very personal question, and, I think, it depends on why you are running the marathon. For the most part, marathons are worth it. When you complete a marathon, the first one at least, it becomes a life altering event.


Pesach Sommer said...

I knew you'd come around :)

Races ARE getting very expensive in the US, at least the big ones. NYC is close to $200.

Rafi G. said...

ya know, 8 days after the Tel Aviv Marathon I was itching for another one. For the next few days I kept saying to myself I am ready to run another one right now..
thankfully there are no more marathons in israel until January!