This month, the serious medical danger of marathon running surfaced again during unseasonable warm spells at some of the country’s biggest fall marathons. In Chicago, temperatures freakishly climbing in the 80s propelled event organizers to cancel the run three-and-a-half hours into the race, after a 35-year-old man collapsed and later died. In Minneapolis where temperatures reached into the 70s, Twin Cities Marathon medical director Steve Sterner told the Associated Press that 250 runners were treated for heat exhaustion, dehydration and heatstroke, compared to 160 treated in the 2006 race.
On the Internet, many folks derided my piece as elitist and hypocritical, assailing my argument as an attempt to be an arbiter of just who should and shouldn’t run a marathon.
They miss the point.
My corrective to the exponential slowing of marathon running since the 1970s is an effort to call attention to the severe toll that marathon running exacts on the human body. What these latest heat-induced health scares show us is that there are a lot of people out there running marathons who aren’t physically up to the task…yet.
Marathon running was formerly a pursuit of seasoned endurance athletes. Now it’s the domain of the masses. All extreme endeavors are being democratized, oftentimes with unintended and unfortunate consequences. Once fringe sports like mountain climbing now populate corporate retreats and the brochures of package tours for overworked urbanites eager for an escape. A cottage industry of magazines, self-help books and gurus exhort us to tally “Life Lists” and push our limits. And yet, as the amateur ranks multiply and new, untested participants practice extreme sports like marathoning, the danger is that these newcomers are jumping in without sufficient preparation with the potential for fatal results. The question, then, is not that these sports are only activities for the elite, it’s that our Instant Gratification culture lionizes achievement over preparation. Running a 5K and building your endurance step-by-step isn’t going to earn you points around the water cooler, but it should.