Driving home from work several months ago, I found myself trailing a car sporting an innocuous little bumper sticker. In contrast to so many of today’s bumper stickers, there was nothing inflammatory about this one: a bordered oval framing the numbers 26.2. I’d like to boast that I had its meaning in an instant, but, embarrassingly, I had to turn it over a while in my mind–long after that car had turned off–as if it were some cipher worthy of my utmost concentration. Then, somewhere on the drive between Uintah and Fillmore, it came to me: Pheidippides and his fabled run from Marathon to Athens, his resulting death, the 1896 Summer Olympics, a race held in Boston in 1897, and 150 costumed Elvises (Elvi if we’re being grammatical) running 26.2 miles in Las Vegas. (And by the way, I have always wondered whether Pheidippides died from battle wounds or from the rigors of having just run the mother of all marathons; Herodotus was none too clear in translation.) To a small—but growing–sliver of the general population, 26.2 needs no introduction, and no explanation. It is the secret handshake of a fraternity, a sign understood if not by all then by all who matter. Ever since that first sighting, I see 26.2 everywhere: on the posteriors of jeeps, bugs, and minivans; on notebooks, laptops and guitar cases. I remain, however, on the lookout for my first 3.1 (5k) or 6.2 (10k). Maybe some brave soul reading this piece ought to start a trend.
26.2 is a natural buzzword (buzznumber?) for the marathoner; it is, after all, the statistic that defines his or her athletic event of choice. But here’s a question. Is 26.2 on its way to becoming the very emblem of the runner in general? If a vehicle sports a 3.1, 6.2 or even a 13.1 (half marathon) bumper sticker, is its driver relegated to some lower rung of the aerobic ladder, pitied as one who looks up in sycophantic admiration at the 26.2 rung, aspiring to someday arrive, to someday be a “runner” with all the requisite bragging rights? Would one who bravely—or naively–advertised so trifling a number as 3.1 or 6.2 be thought a neophyte, an amateur, a dabbler or, worse yet, a jogger? And would he or she be passed without a friendly beep or a knowing nod by the driver whose bumper boasts a weighty 26.2? In a supersized culture where bigger is assumed better, tall is the new small, Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet, and English mastiffs are trending, has the marathon become the litmus test for passage into runninghood? Is the marathon the aerobic watershed that parts the wannabe from the genuine article? Is 26.2 the thresher for winnowing the weekend warrior’s chafe from the devotee’s grain? (Did I say it was an innocuous little bumper sticker?) Have we come to a place where a runner isn’t really a runner without having reached for the Bodyglide and made the 26.2 mile pilgrimage? I fear that the marathon is becoming to running what Mensa is to intelligence. If so, even the marathoner must ultimately concede to the ultramarathoner, whose sport is in the throes of its exponential growth phase.
Say that I’m stirring up a tempest in a teacup, if you must, but I think there’s something slightly sinister—ok, very slightly sinister in the scheme of sinister things—about the confidence of 26.2’s voice and the comparative muteness of distances that dare not speak their name. To me it hints of number worship, and, dare I say, a budding elitism. To counter, what do you say we show 3.1 and 6.2 some love? There is and will always be great value in running the five & dimes, as I collectively call them. Not that there is anything wrong with marathons and ultramarathons and the milephiles (you heard it here first) who run them. There are many constitutions and characters ideally suited to these great distances, many minds salved by the meditative effects of running in excess of three hours, many dollars raised for charities, and many selves actualized in the wearing of a finishing medal upon completion of a 26.2, 50 or 100 mile event. All running is good, right? But there are many more constitutions and psyches for which less is not less but just right. Individuals seeking life balance may train for and run the five & dimes–even at very competitive levels—while saving ample time for family, career, travel, education, volunteerism, and diverse athletic and creative hobbies. For parents, the 5k race is a perfect means of introducing children to running and racing; such races make ideal Saturday-morning family outings with health benefits for all (not just the runner on a 26.2 mile quest). Like a marathon, a 5k or 10k race promises an elated finish, social bonding opportunities, and a chance to give to community charities (and to get a cool t-shirt). But unlike a marathon, a recreational 5k or 10k race can be run well on 40 or fewer weekly training miles. This is perfect for runners whose injury thresholds are crossed before the 40 mile mark. For runners who experience compromised immunity, burnout or injury on anything more than 40 miles per week, the marathon just doesn’t make sense. But running—and racing-still does. And there’s even something for the competitor in the five & dime venue: the quest for personal records at shorter distances includes all the athletic legitimacy (and all the health benefits) of pushing the distance envelope. And if you miss that personal 5k or 10k record this weekend, you can always get it the very next weekend. Try that with a marathon! (On second thought, please don’t).