‘Why I believe marathons are a waste of time’

Triumphant: Eliud Kipchoge finished the race in two hours, one minute and 39 seconds. © Getty
by Daniel Engber

A columnist for Slate, Engber has also written for The New York Times Magazine, Wired and FiveThirtyEight, specialising in science, psychology and sport.

This weekend, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge broke the marathon world record in Berlin. “I lack words to describe this day,” he said. But some believe marathons are dangerous and pointless.

Have we devised any greater waste of time and energy than the running of the marathon? I’m asking for a friend.

This friend will soon be training for the New York City Marathon, and he’ll be going at it for a span of 20 weeks. When he’s finished all his workouts, iced his injuries and prepped his body for the brutal course, he’ll be ready to achieve a goal that has no meaning in itself and offers benefits to no one.

Like half a million others in America every year, he’ll have put in at least 100 hours (and maybe more) to an unpaid part-time job, just so he can lope across an arbitrary distance set a century ago to please an arbitrary power. Twenty-six miles and 385 yards: the span between the window of the royal nursery at Windsor Castle and the royal box at Shepherd’s Bush.

“It’s an exercise of will, not one of purpose; the marathoner views achievement as a virtue of its own”

The case against the marathon is so apparent that one really shouldn’t have to give it voice. In a world that’s just and sane, the burden of proof would fall the other way, on all the maniacs who are draining so much effort in this risky, fruitless hobby.

Some 550,000 Americans will be running one this year, training up to five or six days per week for five or six months. That means they’ll have devoted something like 100 million hours to this dash away from common sense. Put another way, they’ll have spent 11,000 years, and 150 human lifetimes.

Consider all the other things we could accomplish in those hours spent in training. Half a million Americans could speak a little Arabic. Half a million Americans could learn computer programming, maybe well enough to start a new career. Half a million Americans could do something truly beneficial for themselves or for their neighbours or for the country as a whole.

Instead they run and run and run, and then they run some more.

Why do they run? I have no idea.

I hope it’s not that people run in marathons to improve their health. All the evidence goes the other way: getting ready for a 26-mile run breaks your body down. “Use your non-running days to rest and recover,” advises one training website. “Ice down any soreness, particularly in knees or shins (most common) four times per day… Injuries often sneak up without warning.” That sounds more like self-abuse than self-improvement.

Studies find that up to one in 12 participants end up seeking medical help during the race. As many as four-fifths report having gastrointestinal problems such as bloating, cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea while on the course. Some runners suffer from blood poisoning. Others must endure a blitz of dermatological conditions.

I get the feeling that marathoners think of themselves as gritty, motivated types, who would rather train and get things done than sit around watching videos on Facebook. Indeed, they’ll often note the fact of their accomplishment (we might think of this as “showing off”) on social media.

For them, the pursuit of running 26 miles may have less to do with any functional reward than merely having gone through training in the first place. It’s an exercise of will, not one of purpose; the marathoner views achievement as a virtue of its own — like climbing Everest because it’s there.

It’s telling that this monomania gets rewarded — every single time, with cheering crowds and Facebook likes — despite its lack of substance. I guess the form itself excites us: we’re so starved for ways to show self-discipline, and to regiment our time, that any goal will do, even one so imbecilic as the marathon.

This article was published in Slate in May 2016. You can find the full version under Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever want to run a marathon?

Activities

  1. Come up with an alternative to the marathon which retains its symbolic importance but which is better for the competitor’s health.

Word Watch

New York City Marathon
The New York City Marathon takes place on the first Sunday of each November. It costs $295 (£225) to enter and, along with events in Boston and Chicago, is the pre-eminent marathon in the US.
Windsor Castle
Situated 30 miles west of London, Windsor Castle is one of the British monarch’s four official residences. The other three are Buckingham Palace, Sandringham and Balmoral.
Royal box at Shepherd’s Bush
Shepherd’s Bush is an area in inner West London.
Dermatological
Referring to skin. Complaints include sore nipples (affecting up to 1 in 6 on race day); chafing (another 1 in 6); blisters (1 in 3); and jogger’s toe (1 in 40).