WHAT MAKES A MARATHONER?
How one marathoner went from one-and-done to lifelong devotee
There’s an oft-cited statistic that claims that only 0.1 per cent of people have run a marathon. Or maybe it’s 0.01 per cent. Nobody really knows, but it’s very rare. We do know that an extremely small minority of people have run 42.2k in a race. For the recreational road runner, there are few things as rare – or challenging – as the marathon.
There’s also no other athletic achievement that draws as much defensive derision: “I don’t even like driving that far! Was someone chasing you?” etc. It’s good-natured, as long as you understand that it comes from a place of “I couldn’t possibly fathom the depth of your accomplishment, so I have no choice but to minimize it.”
But there’s one question that’s rarely examined: what makes a marathoner? For some, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. For others, marathons define their every day: they plan their evenings around the next morning’s run, which they run with their friends who do the same thing. When they’re not training, they’re reading books about running. Diet is dictated in large part by how food will fuel runs. But how do you get from one to the other? When does “marathoner” stop representing something you did and become something you are?
In 2008, I ran a marathon, just to see if I could. Twenty years after my last high-school race, thanks to a friend who had challenged me to get back in shape and start taking care of myself, I started running again. On my first run, I made it all of 2 km before I had to stop to catch my breath. With a vague goal of running a half-marathon, I increased my distance bit by bit until, five months later, I could get through a 17 km run without dying. That’s also when the friend, who maxed out at 14-km runs, stopped running with me. Unperturbed, I soldiered on, increasing my distance until I realized I’d be able to finish the half-marathon comfortably.
None of this was a demonstration of any kind of fitness: I was still smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and too often found myself on the wrong end of closing time at the neighbourhood bar. So one Sunday morning, seven weeks before the race, full of self-loathing, I signed up instead for the Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
I found a generic training plan online, worked back from race day, cut out the easy weeks, and got myself up to a 32-km run two weeks before the race. On race day, I wore an old Timex in stopwatch mode, tried to run as fast as I could, and managed 36 km before my hamstrings seized, my feet cramped, and I limped to the finish line in 4:04.
“Easy enough,” I thought. “I can run marathons!”
Not quite. I liked the idea of having run a marathon more than I liked training. On inadequate mileage and misplaced hubris, ignorant of body-strengthening concepts, I tried two more marathons over the next 18 months, finishing each in just under six hours, and summarily quit running.
Keeley Milne, an accomplished marathoner and ultrarunner, won the 2019 Calgary mec Marathon and coaches with Personal Peak Coaching in Medicine Hat, Alta. Milne believes every runner can become a consistent marathoner, but athletes need to be aware of the negative factors that can impact their approach to running.
“I had to learn the hard way that our body can’t really tell the difference between being overloaded with mental stress and being