Running a marathon is one of the most challenging and rewarding events that any of us will experience. The human body imposes natural limitations on the distance we can run easily. Twenty miles is about the furthest we can go comfortably, even if we are well trained, before we begin to run out of fuel and our muscles begin to hurt. The marathon distance is exquisitely set to take us beyond our comfort zone, into a realm in which we confront the limitations of our bodies and our minds. We complete the marathon distance only by patient preparation and mental discipline. There are no short cuts, no easy ways out. The marathon takes us up to, and beyond, the limit of human endurance, into an unknown zone where we confront our true selves, and discover our inner strengths and limits.
Thirty-five thousand people run the London Marathon each year, and tens of thousands of runners also take part in big city marathons such as New York, Paris, Boston, and Sydney. Why do we all do it? There is something about the challenge of the marathon that attracts our adventurousness.
Most participants in a marathon want to finish. They may run the whole distance; more likely they will run and walk, just as long as they get round. These are the real heroes of the marathon – the runners who have risen to a challenge unlike anything they have done before. They may be running for charity, perhaps in memory of a loved one, or to show themselves and the world that they have the inner strength to succeed.
The next group of marathon runners want to perform and improve. These are often club runners, and they may well have run a marathon before, and now want to finish in a faster time (or at least fight off the effects of advancing age by finishing no slower). The pressure is enormous: they train for months, focused on a single race. If they happen to have a bad day, it will be another six months before they have their next chance to achieve their goals and recover their pride and confidence.
The third and final group of runners are the elite racers, hoping to do well, or perhaps win, at least in their age group. Again, their opportunities to achieve their goals are rare. Unless they are blessed with an extraordinary physiology, marathon athletes may have as few as eight or ten good marathon races in their whole lifetime; some have as few as two or three.
There are plenty of good reasons for training for and running a marathon. The training will help you to lose weight and increase your fitness. Running will bring you more self-confidence and energy. Achieving such a demanding goal will earn you self-respect, and the esteem of others around you.
One of the excitements and pleasures of the marathon is that all these runners take part in the same race, with the same sense of occasion. All know that, in different ways, they are facing up to their own challenge.
Which football-lover has played in a team with their football idols? Which hockey player has skated with the great names of hockey? As a runner, I’ve been privileged to take part in races with my heroes, including Paula Radcliffe, Josiah Tugwane, Bill Rodgers and Haile Gebreselassie. They beat me, for sure, but we were all part of it together.