The Problem with The (American) Marathon

Over the past few decades, after the running boom of the 1970’s, we’ve seen a steady decline in the competitiveness of American distance runners. This is hardly surprising in a country where everyone is told they’re the best at everything, and at the end of the day everyone gets a trophy.

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The year is 490 B.C.E., and the Athenians are at war with the Persians. After the particularly crucial battle of Marathon, the dust settles and it becomes clear that the underdog Athenians have held off the Persians for the time being. A young soldier, Pheidippides, is sent back to Athens to relay the news of the victory to the city. After completing the 24-mile run, he announces, “Rejoice, we conquer!” and promptly collapses and dies. Fast forward 2200 years- same location- and you will see Spyridon Louis win the first Olympic marathon race along the same course once traversed by Pheidippides. Only 100 years later, the very route once memorialized in the first Olympic games, is now home to an annual marathon, just like every other major city in the world. Every year you can watch tens of thousands of overweight, undertrained “athletes” struggle to half jog, half walk across 26.2 miles of, at least in the running world, sacred ground. What happened? Why, in such a short period of time, has the once-revered ultimate challenge to the human body become the new, trendy, social event of the year?

            Well, it hasn’t happened everywhere- at least not yet. There are still a few untainted locations across the globe where the marathon is revered and serious running is treated as a way of life. Most of them are in the eastern half of Africa. Grant Jarvie, the Head of the Department of Sports Studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland has spent years researching why East African runners are so dominant in long distance races. In his chapter of the book “East African Running”, he explains that 16 African countries are in the top 20 poorest in the world. They are unable to afford expensive equipment needed for most sports, so it is only natural that they would take up running- the simplest form of athletic competition. Many live on less than $2 a day, yet throughout the second half of the last century, and so far in this one, the vast majority of the top performances in distances of 3000 meters and above have come from Kenyans or Ethiopians (Jarvie 24, 31). It is often argued that Africans are better at these events simply due to more natural physical ability. This is the lazy American’s excuse.

The main reason, as Jarvie argues, is that distance running is the East African’s ticket out of poverty. From a young age, children are encouraged to train in order to prepare them for a possible running career. Even the small amounts of money awarded for winning American road races are enough to transform the lives of everyone in a village. A survey of elite Kenyan female runners showed that for 50% of them, money was their main motivation. Only 2% said they were motivated by fun (Jarvie 32).

Now we will travel to the opposite side of the globe, to America- the home of mediocrity in all things distance running. The average marathon time for American men last year was 4 hours, 32 minutes, and 8 seconds. That’s nearly two and a half hours slower than the 2 hour, three minute, and 59 second world record time of Ethiopian Haile Gebreselassie. In an article called “How Oprah Ruined the Marathon” on, an online magazine, Edward McClelland compares the “new” running boom, started by Oprah, to the boom of the 1970’s inspired by Frank Shorter’s victory in the 1972 Olympic Marathon. He states that America’s “marathoning spirit has been trampled by hordes of joggers whose only goal is to stagger across the finish line” (McClelland). An ex-high school runner and current marathoner himself, McClelland is irritated, and rightly so, that many people do marathons only to finish them, not to compete. He states, “The marathon [is] no longer a competition, but a self improvement exercise.” Oprah’s time of 4 hours and 19 minutes (the “Oprah Line”) is now the time to beat for many people. McClelland claims that Oprah’s constant encouragement for people to take their time and not compete with others is one of the reasons that the participation of the Chicago marathon has increased by one thousand percent in the past fifteen years, but the average finishing time has gone up by more than 40 minutes to 4:15, not too far off the Oprah line (McClelland).

Look on any online running message board, for instance, and you will see that when asked why they run marathons, the average American’s answer is that, “it’s fun” or, “to finish”- very different from the African marathoner’s motivation. Why do Americans have such a different view on the matter? It’s simple. Most American’s don’t have any reason to compete. They enjoy stopping along the way to watch bands, or even to get pedicures (Cooper). They don’t rely on winning races as a major source of income, and if they do win one, it likely won’t have the impact on their life that it would on an East African’s.

            While many people frown upon the lack of competitive spirit in American recreational running, they probably don’t know the history of the pastime. In December 1962, a fifty-year-old man set off from America to New Zealand. The flight left him a little stiff, so one of his friends told the man to call him the next morning and they’d go on an easy run together to loosen up a bit. When they arrived at the place they’d be running, the old man was in shock. There were hundreds of runners of all ages and sizes. “I thought a cross country race was going on”, he would later recount in his biography, but it turned out all these people were just out for a jog on a Sunday morning- a concept completely new to the American (Moore 146). When he left New Zealand, he brought the hobby back to America with him, and started jogging clubs of his own, effectively beginning the recreational running boom in America. Would it surprise you if you were told that this man was Bill Bowerman, the legendary University of Oregon cross country coach? Many critics of the non-competitive running scene would find it interesting that the coach of arguably the greatest cross country program in the country was the same man who brought recreational jogging to America.

            Another proponent of the recreational running boom is John Bingham, more commonly referred to as “The Penguin”. Ask any back-of-the-packer at a marathon who Bill Bowerman is, and they will likely give you a blank stare. Ask the same jogger who “The Penguin” is, and they will know exactly who you are talking about (McClelland). The difference between the two, besides one being an iconic figure of the sport and the other an ex-smoker and music teacher, comes down to their theory on non competitive running. Bowerman pushed his joggers to run to their fullest potential, which might not always mean competing with other joggers. The Penguin often encourages his followers to stop during marathons and to enjoy the scenery- something that is definitely not conducive to an all-out race effort. 

Bingham writes a monthly column for the running magazine Runner’s World called The Penguin: No Need for Speed. In an article called “Stranger in Paradise” from the August, 2004 issue, Bingham describes his experience at the Honolulu marathon. Every year this marathon around the island attracts many more Japanese runners than Americans, and Bingham takes the opportunity to observe any differences in running style. The slower Japanese runners weren’t discouraged by less than mediocre times, but rather were pleased that they were finishing a marathon. His reason for the difference is cultural:

We on the mainland live in a culture of immediate gratification. We give 110    percent, and expect no less. Fast food is not fast enough. If big is good, bigger must be better. In marathons, your finishing time is paramount. 
Japan has plenty of hard-driving business executives and fast marathoners. But watching these Japanese runners, I detected something different-a Zen-like approach to running and an appreciation for the experience of finishing, no matter what the final time. The rest of us might have something to learn from their example. (Bingham)

It is commendable that Bingham has influenced a lot of people to take up running, but it is people like this who are causing American marathoners to be slower every year. Not only does he suggest that people who already run at the back of the pack take races a bit easier, but that our country as a whole should as well.

            The average American pays attention to competitive running for about one week every four years during the Olympics. If Americans are to stay competitive with other elite marathoning countries, our athletes cannot be stopping to smell the roses. This should be true for anyone running a race of any distance. Each tier of individuals pushes those ahead of them to faster times. The harder the back of the pack tries, the harder the ones at the front will have to try, resulting in faster and more competitive times on a global scene.  

            So what has happened to the marathon? First, Americans are much more privileged than most groups of people. Simple sports don’t attract the masses, and from a young age children are encouraged to be pitchers or linebackers. Cross Country is often seen as the athletic choice for non-athletic kids, regardless of the fact that it is the simplest form of competition. Since there is often a lack of talent funneling into the higher ranks because of a lack of participation, the professional running scene tends to be a bit lacking. Also, there are no current American running heroes available to the mainstream masses. Our championship runners are typically born in Kenya and transfer citizenship. With a lack of American born talent (the 1972 running boom had Shorter and Steve Prefontaine), Americans turn to the media for advice. They get tips from Oprah and from John Bingham, who didn’t run a step in their lives until they were well past their athletic primes. The solution to our problem is fairly simple. If marathoning is going to regain it’s former prestige and power in America, we need a new hero- a modern day Pheidippides, or another Prefontaine.

            In 1972, millions of American children sat in front of their TV watching as the unheard of Frank Shorter dominate a multitude of African harriers over the course of 26 miles. He made it look easy, yet in many of these young hearts a spark was ignited that set off the desire to run, and to run fast. This is all it takes for a real running boom to happen. The only question is, who will step up and light the fire?

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Works Cited

Bingham, John. “Stranger In Paradise.” Runner’s World. Runner’s World Magazine, Aug. 2004. Web. 13 Oct. 2010. .

 Cooper, Bob. “Marathons You Should Do In ‘08.” Runner’s Runner’s World, 3 Dec. 2007. Web. 13 Oct. 2010. .

 Jarvie, Grant. “The Promise and Possibilities of Running in and out of East Africa.” East African Running. Ed. John Bale, Timothy Noakes, Craig Sharp, Yannis Pitsiladis. Abingdon: Routledge, 2007. 24-39

 McClelland, Edward. “How Oprah Ruined the Marathon – Edward McClelland –” – 3 Nov. 2007. Web. 12 Oct. 2010. .

 Moore, Kenny. Bowerman and the Men of Oregon: the Story of Oregon’s Legendary Coach and Nike’s Cofounder. [Emmaus, Pa.]: Rodale, 2006. Print.

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  1. Posted November 14, 2010 at 2:25 am

    Very interesting article

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