When we cheer on marathon runners, are we applauding the right thing?

A few years ago I returned to my parents’ home after a long run. I was training for a marathon. Early one Sunday morning and covered in sweat and spit (but having taken off my shoes) I shuffled into the family living room. My father and brother were seated on comfy furniture engrossed in the newspapers. My father looked up, smiled, and asked me, “how far did you go?”

“Seventeen miles, I replied.”

My brother casually dipped the top of the broadsheet he was reading and without missing a beat inquired, “did you take my car or mum’s?”

We can always rely on family and close friends to keep our feet on the ground, and to remind us that sometimes what we do is not normal. 

I’m writing this on the eve of the 2018 Chicago marathon. Most of those taking part will have been in formal training for over four months. Chicago has a large number of group training programs, which is lucky because it helps to have coaching, it helps to have peer support, and because misery loves company.

Towards the beginning of training the athletes may run 15 miles a week. As they progress through the program this can climb to peak in excess of 40 or 50 miles. Their bodies are being pushed beyond what were once were limits. As new thresholds are breached, successes are celebrated. As unexpected injuries arise, they are navigated… or commiserated; simply getting to the start line in something close to one piece is a huge win.

On their journey they will learn more about physiology and anatomy than they ever wanted to know: which muscles work in tandem with one another, which joints suffer when a body is out of balance, and how to address weakness in stabilizing muscles through cross-training. They will learn a foreign language with words and expressions such as ‘plantar fasciitis’ and ‘iliotibial bands’. The risk of over-use injury increases with each week if the training isn’t measured. You can’t cram for a marathon. Consistency is key.

In addition to their muscles they are training their gut to absorb an amount of sugar that would make a dentist weep. Post race showers perform a cleansing role – vital to their loved ones – but the hot water also serves to inform them, painfully, which parts of their bodies they need to lube in order to head off sometimes bloody chaffing. And all those miles on their feet will build the calluses needed to protect them on race day; you don’t want to lose this hard-won armor during a pedicure.

What each runner puts into a race is beyond impressive, but this is only part of the story. 

A successfully completed marathon training program takes self-discipline, and it takes sacrifice. The opportunity cost, as economists refer to it, of training for an endurance event is immense; it’s not what you do in order to achieve success, it’s what you give up.

Near constant tiredness means prioritizing sleep wherever possible. If the runner has a family and only a small support network then this is not always an option; there are many days they are flying on vapor. 

Nights out with friends are curtailed, or even put on hold in order to be able to wake up for the weekly long run that can begin at 6am. The alarm goes off even earlier to allow for the obligatory morning movement – one’s bowels must not be rushed. Restrooms are not always an option on some routes, and if your run lasts for 20 miles then…

Other hobbies, past times, and responsibilities are put on ice to accommodate what quickly becomes an inflated time commitment because in addition to the core event listed in the training program, the runner needs to factor in the travel to and from, and stretching immediately following. What the training program also fails to mention is the time required for sports massage, physical therapy, buying new running attire, nutrition,… and the list goes on. Running becomes they only thing they can talk about.

Finally, the role of the support network can’t be understated. It’s not just the runner who is giving up time with their friends, it’s also the friends giving up time with the runner. At home a partner may be taking on more of the chores. And don’t forget the emotional wringer; it’s a roller coaster of joy and misery, delight in hitting goals, doubts when they are missed, or when the athlete needs to start all over again after an injury. It takes a village.

If a marathon takes place in your city, please cheer these people on. Please also know that marathon running is very much like the proverbial iceberg and it’s not just for that one day you’re cheering but also their hidden effort, their hidden sacrifice, and their hidden village. Thank you for your support.

 

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