Have we devised any greater waste of time and energy than the running of the marathon? I’m asking for a friend.
This friend will soon be training for the New York City Marathon, and he’ll be going at it for a span of 20 weeks. When he’s finished all his workouts, iced his injuries and prepped his body for the brutal course, he’ll be ready to achieve a goal that has no meaning in itself and offers benefits to no one. Like half a million others in this country every year, he’ll have put in at least 100 hours (and maybe more) to an unpaid part-time job, just so he can lope across an arbitrary distance set a century ago to please an arbitrary power. Twenty-six miles and 385 yards: the span between the window of the royal nursery at Windsor Castle and the royal box at Shepherd’s Bush.
Lots of people will be cheering him along, but let me say this now, so no one ends up disappointed: I won’t be among those people cheering, because those people are insane.
Some will read this as a #slatepitch, and say it’s just a way for me to troll for clicks, as if calling runners foolish were like saying pie is overrated or that constellations suck. But the logic goes the other way: It’s the runners who have gone against the grain; it’s the runners who have tried to make a virtue of their quirky point of view; it’s the runners who demand attention for all the time they spend on worthless locomotion; it’s the runners who are trolling all the rest of us. The marathon must be the biggest #slatepitch of all time.
The case against the marathon—and for people to do something better with their time—is so apparent that one really shouldn’t have to give it voice. In a world that’s just and sane, the burden of proof would fall the other way, on all the maniacs who are draining so much effort in this risky, fruitless hobby. Figure that some 550,000 Americans will be running one this year, training up to five or six days per week for five or six months. That means they’ll have devoted something like 100 million hours to this dash away from common sense. Put another way, they’ll have spent 11,000 years, and 150 human lifetimes.
Consider all the other things we could accomplish in those hours spent in training. Half a million Americans could speak a little Arabic. Half a million Americans could learn computer programming, maybe well enough to start a new career. Half a million Americans could devote themselves to helping out in soup kitchens, or fortifying dikes, or memorizing sonnets, or playing Google Image Labeler. Half a million Americans could do something truly beneficial for themselves or for their neighbors or for the country as a whole.
Instead they run and run and run, and then they run some more.
Why do they run? I have no idea.
I hope it’s not that people run in marathons to improve their health. All the evidence goes the other way: Getting ready for a 26-mile run breaks your body down. “Use your non-running days to rest and recover,” advises one training website. “Ice down any soreness, particularly in knees or shins (most common) four times per day. … Injuries often sneak up without warning.” That sounds more like self-abuse than self-improvement.
Indeed a vast, disturbing literature has now accumulated on the ill effects of running marathons. Studies find that up to 1 in 12 participants end up seeking medical help during the race. (At hot-weather events, runners can end up “dropping like flies.”) As many as four-fifths report having gastrointestinal problems such as bloating, cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and fecal incontinence while on the course. Some runners suffer from blood poisoning. Others must endure a blitz of dermatological conditions: sore nipples (affecting up to 1 in 6 on race day); chafing (another 1 in 6); blisters (1 in 3); and jogger’s toe (1 in 40). Given all the risks, it’s no wonder that some marathon organizers have asked doctors to embed as race participants so they can quickly tend to runners who collapse.
When researchers consider all the injuries that accrue during the period of training—and not just on the day of the marathon itself—they find even greater cause for alarm. One study looked at 255 participants in an extended, 32-week marathon training program and found that 90 of them—that’s 35 percent—experienced “overuse” injuries. (Among the most common training ailments are anterior knee pain, Achilles tendinitis, shin splints, and stress fractures.) Another research group surveyed 725 men who raced in the 2005 Rotterdam Marathon, and found that more than half of them had sustained a running injury over the course of the year. Among those who sustained a new injury during the month leading up to the race, one-quarter were still suffering, to some extent, three months later.
Deaths do occur during the marathon, but I’m glad to say they’re very, very rare. Most runners’ ailments will be temporary; then again, most runners won’t have any benefits to weigh against those modest costs. Even if they don’t ruin their knees, twist their ankles, or bang their toes while training, their weekly hobby won’t do much to help their health. Marathoners fail to lose weight, as a rule, and while aerobic exercise may be good for the heart, doing a huge amount of aerobic exercise brings at best diminishing returns.
The sport isn’t merely dangerous; it’s extravagant. It costs more than $250 just to enter the New York City Marathon and to have the chance to chafe your nipples alongside 50,000 other people. Meanwhile, humanity’s oldest form of exercise has spawned a multibillion-dollar industry in footwear. Even efforts to pare down the sport to fundamentals have been absorbed into this marketing, such that there now exists a set of high-priced products known, improbably enough, as “barefoot running shoes.”
I get the feeling that marathoners think of themselves as gritty, motivated types, who would rather train and get things done than sit around watching videos on Facebook. Indeed, they’ll often note the fact of their accomplishment (we might think of this as “showing off”) on social media. For them, the pursuit of running 26 miles may have less to do with any functional reward than merely having gone through training in the first place. It’s an exercise of will, not one of purpose; the marathoner views achievement as a virtue of its own—like climbing Everest because it’s there.
It’s telling that this monomania gets rewarded—every single time, with cheering crowds and Facebook likes—despite its lack of substance. (At least Everest has a view!) I guess the form itself excites us: We’re so starved for ways to show self-discipline, and to regiment our time, that any goal will do, even one so imbecilic as the marathon. This only calls attention to the wasted opportunity: If we want to celebrate the act of building up to something hard—if we’re ready to devote ourselves, for at least 100 hours, to regimented training—then we should strive for something better. Instead of spending all that time purely for the sake of having spent it, let’s pursue a goal that has some meaning in itself.
That’s the spirit of the Anti-Marathon, introduced this week at Slate. We’re hoping to reclaim the idea of working hard, so the energy that goes into running marathons can be put to better and more lasting use. Read all about it (and then pick a project and get on board!) here.