The Marathon Mystique
by Jonathan Beverly
What is the appeal of the marathon? Why does this event, the most daunting of Olympic distances, attract thousands of participants each year, many again and again, particularly in an age known primarily for its comforts and convenience? Certainly each runner brings motivations as varied as his or her personality, but the marathon’s broad appeal hints that some aspect of the event speaks to our common human nature.
Those of us who feel the pull know that simplistic, formulaic answers inevitably fall short of describing our obsession. The marathon lures us by appealing to every aspect of our being. It provides a physical challenge, an intellectual puzzle, an emotional inspiration, and a spiritual test. Any attempt to explain the marathon must address all of these attributes.
A Physical Challenge
Whatever else we may be as humans, we remain physical beings, with an animal nature that is wired not only for activity, but for threats and challenges. “We all have adrenaline,” wrote the travel essayist Bruce Chatwin. “We cannot drain it from our systems or pray it will evaporate.” Adrenaline preps our body to respond to physical danger, and flows through our veins even when we sit idle at our desks. “Deprived of danger,” Chatwin continues, “we invent artificial enemies, psychosomatic illnesses, tax-collectors, and worst of all, ourselves, if we are left alone in the single room. Adrenaline is our travel allowance. We might as well use it up in a harmless way.” In an increasingly sedentary world, running gives us an opportunity to use up this travel allowance without leaving our jobs and families.
This chemical explanation does not, however, answer why some can be satisfied with moderate daily workouts while others are driven to extremes. Psychologist Frank Farley uses the term Type T (for Thrill) personality to describe those of us who crave the cutting edge of experience. He believes that its origin “probably lies in a person’s biological, possibly genetic, makeup.” Farley describes Type T people as “risk takers and adventurers who seek excitement and stimulation wherever they can find or create it.”
The Type T personality is usually associated with high risk sports like whitewater rafting, skydiving or rock-climbing. Marathoners don’t often place themselves in the same camp as X-game competitors, yet we may have more Type T traits than we admit. We may never dream of scaling a vertical ice peak, but few marathoners won’t relate to the emotions described by Jon Krakauer in his bestseller Into the Wild. “As I formulated my plan to climb The Thumb,” Krakauer writes of a remote Alaskan mountain, “I was dimly aware that I might be getting in over my head. But that only added to the scheme’s appeal. That it wouldn’t be easy was the whole point.”
Intimately tied to the marathon’s appeal is the fact that it is a difficult and risky undertaking. Success is not guaranteed. The marathon distance takes us beyond where the body can predictably perform. Pushing the edge of our physical competence, any number of factors can spoil the best laid plans.
In training, we constantly skirt the edge of injury and exhaustion. Race day forgives no weaknesses or mistakes—the tiniest flaw compounds to disaster over the course of 26 miles. This is not a safe hobby. We wouldn’t have it any other way. In this age of physical ease, the marathon gives those of us who need it a rare chance to push the edge of our physical limits without packing our bags and heading to Everest.
Unlike Everest, however, we do have a reasonable assurance of surviving the ordeal. Experience has demonstrated that nearly everyone, given adequate preparation, can complete the event. This fact makes it no less daunting (that “adequate preparation” clause can’t be taken lightly) nor less of a challenge for the gifted or experienced. The marathon’s challenge expands to meet our ability, giving us everything we can handle at whatever level we approach it.
An Intellectual Puzzle
The marathon offers far more than a physical challenge, however. More than any other athletic event it favors the thinkers, the planners. The ability to develop and execute a training plan, to monitor and adjust to changing conditions, to set an appropriate pace, and to concentrate for hours on one task, all contribute more to marathon success than leg speed. We find satisfaction in a sport where natural ability won’t cover up for ignorance or irrationality.
The mental side of the marathon separates us from other Type T’s, but doesn’t exclude us from the group. Farley states, “For some, the thrills are mainly in the physical domain; for others, they’re mainly mental, and for still others they’re a mix of both.” Mental Type T’s are creative, flexible thinkers who seek intellectual challenges as passionately as their compatriots do physical thrills, and find themselves bored without them.
Sherlock Holmes is a good example. When Watson lavished praise on him after a particularly difficult mystery, he responded: “My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so.”
Sherlock solved mysteries; we run marathons. To our dismay, we find that the world of work often requires little of our intellectual capacity and even less creativity. We become most valuable when the “learning curve” levels off and terminal boredom sets in, regardless of how busy we may be. When our daily routines become routine, we relish the complex and shifting variables of marathon training and racing which provide an infinitely expandable, uniquely personal puzzle.
Here we find risk as well. Nearly all experts agree on the best training method for a 5K, but the undisputed marathon schedule has yet to be written. The fact is, preparing fully for the marathon is beyond most of our abilities. Unable to do everything, training becomes a puzzle to discover which elements will allow us to exceed our training on race day. We have the chance to be part of the experiment, creating our own theories and testing them in the crucible of experience. With each success or failure we refine our hypotheses and start preparing for the next puzzle.
The marathon satisfies both sides of the Type T personality, challenging our full physical and intellectual abilities in one great adventure. Yet what causes us to seek such an adventure?
An Emotional Inspiration
It is no coincidence that most people come to the marathon later in life. At some point, we look around us, like the hero in Graham Green’s novel The Ministry of Fear, and ask, “Is life really like this? It isn’t how I imagined it; I thought that life was much simpler and—grander.”
All too often we find life muddled and mundane, far from the idealistic dreams we harbored in our youth. We begin to look for something that will give definition to our days, that will inspire us to do more than survive, that perhaps will change our habits and transform us into someone new. The marathon presents itself as such an inspiration, for unlike life, it is both simple and grand.
The marathon is simple, not in terms of complexity—which we know can be wonderfully rich—but in its lack of ambiguity. The goal is concrete and measurable; the road toward it unencumbered with political maneuvering or moral compromises. Success depends entirely upon ourselves, and every day we can do something that brings us closer to our goal.
The marathon is also grand. Its scale dwarfs all of our other endeavors. It is not merely a 26.2 mile race—it covers hundreds of miles and takes place over months. We are drawn as much to the discipline and details of training as the thrill of competition. Once a co-worker asked what I had planned for the weekend, and when I told her a marathon, she asked innocently, “Oh, have you been training for it?” I responded simply, “Yes,” not knowing how to begin to tell her that I had planned my life around it for months, even years. In a world where most live day-to-day, we have a goal—a frighteningly enormous goal—that gets us out of bed in the morning and provides purpose and meaning to all our daily activities: from what we eat for breakfast to how late we stay up at night.
The very name marathon, synonymous with the ultimate endeavor, contributes to its mystique. The unique distance, the myth of Pheidippides, stories of the “Wall,” all add to its aura. These compile to create an inspiration grand enough, in committing ourselves to it, we find something resembling a purpose for our lives. In accomplishing it, we find an identity, as “marathoners.” Yet the marathon’s appeal calls even deeper into our being.
A Spiritual Test
Let me state up front that when I say spiritual, I am not talking about religious or mystical states of consciousness—if you get that from running, more power to you. I am talking about the human will, that part of us that makes moral choices and acts upon them. It is here, I believe that we will find not only the key to why we run marathons, but also why they are popular today, at this point in history.
One of the fundamental characteristics of mankind, according to the philosopher Hegel, is our ability to overcome our instinct for self-preservation—to risk our lives or our comfort—merely for prestige, or for a symbol of recognition. For while animals will fight to the death in self-defense or to preserve their homes, only humans will risk our lives solely for the sake of risking them, to prove to ourselves and others that we can and will. Whenever we choose a painful and difficult path in pursuit of an intangible goal, we affirm our humanity.
From this perspective, the marathon begins to make more sense. We want to believe that we are more than complex, behavioral machines, salivating on cue like Pavlov’s dogs. The more difficult the endeavor, the less obvious the reward, the more we prove that we are truly free, not just to do what we want, but free from our own instinctual natures. This accounts for the moral superiority that we feel when we get up early to run, or choose to do the extra interval in a speed session. We are overcoming the natural and easy road, proving that we have a choice, and thus, dignity.
Historically, men have fought to the death to prove their dignity. Indeed, history is the story of these struggles. In The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argues that the creation of modern liberal societies has been the process of giving up our struggle for recognition in return for the preservation of our lives and prosperity. But Fukuyama concludes that this compromise leaves a part of us cold. While we don’t prefer conflict and war, we find something lacking in a world without battles. We long to transcend our petty, selfish concerns and join the rebels on the barricades, risking it all for a grand cause.
The sweeping historical trends of the past decades have made the world increasingly secure and prosperous. At the same time, they have increased our need to find venues in which to prove ourselves. It should come as no surprise that tests such as the marathon are popular at the turn of the 21st century. In these post-historical times, Fukuyama predicts, there will be some who “will deliberately seek discomfort and sacrifice, because the pain will be the only way they have of proving definitively that they can think well of themselves, that they remain human beings.”
The marathon provides a cause larger than our daily comfort for which we can strive and sacrifice and suffer. It may not bring about world peace or satisfy our deepest spiritual longings, but it does serve as an arena in which we can prove that we are more than instinctual, needy animals—that we choose and act—that we are, indeed, human.