Marathons: What could motivate runners to do them?

Emily Denny/Staff

Every year, I find myself standing at the finish line of the Big Sur International Marathon, cheering my mom on as she completes another marathon. And last weekend, I once again found myself standing there, watching as thousands of people passed the finish line of a 26.2 mile run down California’s Highway 1.

When I stand at the finish line every year, I can’t help but feel proud of each stranger that runs by me. I love to watch as the runner’s face transforms from a look of exhaustion into one of pride when they step over the finish line or as runners meet their friends and families after the race, now proudly wearing a medal. And there’s nothing better than watching the few crazy runners in every marathon who sport wacky costumes for the benefit of a charity.

Although I’ve never run a marathon myself, I’ve become used to the culture surrounding them. Of course it’s normal to wake up before the sun and run down a highway for five hours. Of course it’s normal to be handed foil blankets at the end of your race. And what do you mean you’ve never seen someone’s legs literally collapse underneath them?

But every year, when I leave Berkeley for one weekend to go watch my mom complete another marathon, I’m always asked the same questions: How could anyone ever do that? And why would anyone ever do that? Because despite it being normal to me, running a marathon is, in reality, one of the oddest things people gather together to do. So, every year, when I stand at the finish line, I also can’t help but consider the absurdity of it all.

People dedicate years of their lives to training for a race that was originally inspired by an ancient legend. The marathon tradition began when a Greek messenger ran from Marathon to Athens to report news about Greek war victories. The messenger ran a distance of about 25 miles, and once he finished, he died from exhaustion. Obviously this tradition must live on, but the biggest difference today is that marathon runners don’t actually have to relay information on Greek victories 一 that’s what CNN is for.

To make matters even stranger, marathons are held in some of the most unbelievable locations. Take the Everest Marathon, for example, because the challenge of running 26 miles at sea level isn’t already hard enough. Or the Polar Circle Marathon — you won’t feel the pain of the run when you can’t feel your legs from the freezing temperatures. Or maybe the best of them all: the Marathon du Médoc, a race that hands out wine as you run.

But despite these odd marathon traditions, the actual day of the marathon is what I find to be the most absurd part of it all. In order to complete the run by midday, marathon runners have to wake up at ungodly hours. So at the end of the run, not only are you physically exhausted, but you’re also completely sleep-deprived. And to make a marathon seem even more appealing, at the end of the race, you’ll find runners on the ground, too exhausted to even stand up and celebrate what they’ve just accomplished.

So why do it? Why push your body beyond its physical limit? We know that it has nothing to do with delivering news to Greece’s capital. And we know that it has nothing to do with treating your body properly. Maybe the answer is in the “runner’s high” or in the process of training and becoming more physically fit. Or perhaps it’s simply the ability to claim you’ve crossed that 26-mile finish line, an accomplishment you can brag about for the rest of your life.

But in reality, people like you and me may never know the answer to why people run marathons. And I think even most marathon runners probably don’t either. But every year, when I watch my mom cross the finish line, she seems to remember the reason every time.

Contact Emily Denny at [email protected].