Marathon runners defy Boston attack fears

Thousands of people in London are bracing themselves for one of the most painful experiences of their lives: the marathon. But is there more to running than masochism and madness?

This Sunday, at around 9.30 in the morning, 36,000 brave or foolish people will gather in a South London park. Some will be teenage first-timers, others hardened veterans of 80 years or more. The world’s finest runners will cross paths with amateur athletes, ordinary park joggers and even the occasional couch potato.

This motley crowd are the participants of the London Marathon, one of the biggest mass sporting occasions in the world. This punishing 26.2 mile (42.2 km) run captures the world’s attention every year; but this time it has a special significance, coming just six days after two explosions brought the Boston Marathon to an early and tragic end.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, some speculated that the London event could be cancelled. But the fears were quickly dispelled: runners will wear black armbands and policing has been increased, but in every other way the marathon will go ahead as planned.

A few extra security checks won’t be enough to put runners off: most have already been through gruelling training to prepare for this event, rising early in the coldest, darkest months of the year to pound their way around parks, roads and running tracks.

Their prize? A longer, tougher, more painful run, with the average participant burning almost 3,000 calories. To non-runners (and most participants, after a few miles) it seems like madness.

But conventional marathons are the tip of the iceberg. Some exceptionally hardy souls run ultramarathons of 135 miles (217 km) in temperatures of up to 49°C, and one Belgian athlete completed 26 miles every single day of 2012. Then there are the ‘marathon monks’ of Mount Hiei, for whom the ultimate achievement is to run 52 miles (84 km) for 100 consecutive days.

Biologist Bernd Heinrich believes that there is a simple explanation for this: running long distances is what humans are built for. Deer and cattle can easily outrun us at a sprint or even for 26 miles, but few animals in the world can cover as much ground as homo sapiens over a period of days.

Run for your life

To devoted runners, this makes sense. Once you get over the physical pain, they say, you discover that nothing else gives you such a perfect natural high. Our sedentary modern life is unnatural – we were made to lope for days across forests and plains. Rediscovering this ancient human ability can make you feel truly alive.

But even if humans are built to run, we’ve come a long way since the days when we had to chase antelopes barefoot for food. Marathons are a masochistic exercise in pointless self-torture, say less energetic types: months of training, hours of pain, and all to end up back at the beginning of a circular track. All very impressive – but ultimately a waste of energy.

You Decide

  1. Would you choose to run a marathon? Why / why not?
  2. ‘Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.’ So says the author Haruki Murakami in his bestselling book about running. What does he mean by this, and is he right?

Activities

  1. Go for a 30 minute jog, alternating five minutes of running and five of walking. Record your time and set yourself a target to improve it.
  2. Do some research and write down three ways in which humans are adapted for running long distances.

Some People Say...

“I believe that the Good Lord gave us a finite number of heartbeats and I'm damned if I'm going to use up mine running up and down a street.’ Neil Armstrong, astronaut”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who says running makes you feel good? It feels horrible to me.
It’s a painful and boring experience to begin with, no question. But runners insist that if you persist it can give you an exhilarating rush. Science backs this up: studies have shown that running triggers the release of chemicals that lift your mood and give you a sense of euphoria.
Sounds good – count me in for the next marathon.
Not so fast. For a start, you’ll need to be 18 to sign up for most marathons. And running very long distances can be extremely dangerous – it’s often said that while training for a marathon is beneficial to your health but running it is harmful. Whether or not that’s true, it’s important not to push yourself too hard: start at a speed and distance you find comfortable and build slowly from there.

Word Watch

Marathon
Named after the battle of Marathon, where a messenger is said to have been given the task of informing Athens of Greece’s triumphant victory over the Persians. He completed his journey without stopping, delivered his message, then collapsed and died. Modern marathons, invented for the first Olympic Games in 1896, are 26.2 miles long.
Explosions
The Boston Marathon, one of the most famous in the world, was the subject of a terrorist attack in which three died and wounded almost 200. American police have not yet discovered who was responsible for the bombings.
Calories
A unit of energy equivalent to roughly 4.2 joules. Eating food gives you calories and exercising burns them, but calories by themselves are not a good measure of how healthy your diet is: it’s more important to consider what you eat than how much.
Marathon monks
These monks practise a form of Buddhism which focuses particularly on self-denial and enduring suffering. Their ultimate task lasts seven years, in each of which the monks must run for 100 consecutive days with distances increasing every year. Those who continue beyond the first year must either complete the entire course – which only 46 have managed – or take their own lives. They have been called the ‘greatest athletes on Earth’.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.