“The New Marathon”? Oh, Please

I WAS INNOCENTLY BROWSING the magazines at the running store one afternoon, when my eye fell upon the following headline on the cover of Running Times:

Is 100 Miles the New Marathon?

Now I’m fully aware that a question-posing headline like this is designed to grab attention and sell magazines. It doesn’t mean the related article actually answers the question, or even makes for thought-provoking reading. And what a silly question, too. Who would even consider comparing a one hundred-mile run to a lousy little 26.2?

Naturally, I bought the magazine.

The point of the article, as I suspected, was that the marathon has become so popular over the last 40 years that it no longer inspires awe and wonder. It has evolved in the public eye from an extreme test of endurance to a mainstream event that anyone who’s anyone has on their bucket list.

“P. Diddy, Oprah, and Pam Anderson have done [a marathon],” the article helpfully points out, “but there still aren’t a lot of people you meet that have run 100 miles.”

Well, I guess that depends on the crowd you hang out with.

Ironman athletes
Quiz: identify the people in this photo who have completed one or more Ironman triathlons – 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, 26.2 mile run. (Answer: they all have.)

I’ve met plenty of people who have run races of 100 miles or more, and so can you. Just show up to any ultramarathon and start asking, “So, what have you run lately?” and you’re just about guaranteed to hear about Western States, Leadville, Hardrock, Run Woodstock, Badwater, and the Spartathlon. Sometimes the same person has done them all.

But the article has a point that the 100-miler still evokes the wide-eyed, head-shaking reaction from most people that the marathon no longer does. Most ultras also differ fundamentally from marathons in that they are run on trails instead of roads. This requires a different style of running and training, making an ultra an even more exotic type of beast.

That said, the growth of ultrarunning since the year 2000 does somewhat imitate the growth of the marathon since 1976 or so, when marathon running was a fringe sport attempted by a select few die-hards. Here are some numbers to chew on:

Marathon Finishes 1976-2013
Source: Running USA and vox.com. (Note: the actual number of marathon runners is lower, as many people finish more than one marathon in any year. But the point is the overall growth.)
Ultrarunning magazine - growth of ultras by year
Source: Ultrarunning magazine

Note that while both types of races have grown substantially, the raw numbers are different by orders of magnitude. For example, while there should be several thousand marathon runners in my home state of Michigan, according to Ultrarunning’s data there are only about 500 ultra runners, and even fewer 100-mile finishers.

So will ultrarunning ever become as popular as marathons are now? I doubt it. Running on a trail with rocks and roots, mud and standing water for up to 24 hours or more is, I think, less intrinsically appealing to people than three to six hours on paved roads with lots of company and spectators. That said, I encourage anyone interested in an ultra to come and check one out. You could start out as I did, running five-mile trail races to get a feel for what the ultra is like without the full commitment. Or you could join a trail running group in your area.

And as to whether 100 miles is now needed to match that sense of “you must be crazy to run that distance” the marathon used to inspire? I don’t really care. I run ultras because I enjoy them. And having conquered the 100K in 2015, I will be attempting my first “new marathon” in 2016. Watch this space for details!

One thought on ““The New Marathon”? Oh, Please

  1. Leora

    Hah – the magazine did have a point. It seems that yes, I do know a *ton* of marathon runners (and tri-athletes), but I only know a handful of ultra runners, personally.

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