We’ve all heard of them, admired them, dreamed about being them (well, at least I have) and cringed at the thought of joining them. Exerting the utmost energy from their bodies just to finish their endeavor, pushing their bodies to the absolute limit, they return to their activity day after day. And they do all of this despite the fact that their minds, and the pain they suffer, tell them to quit while they can. Who am I talking about? Not pro football players, not rugby players. I’m talking about marathon runners – the craziest of the crazy.

It all began with the legend of Pheidippides, the Greek soldier who ran the entire way from the town of Marathon to Athens to deliver the message to the senate that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon. Apparently, the trek from Marathon to Athens is upwards of 20 miles, though the route taken is still disputed. However, what runners seem to forget about this tale is the most important part of the piece. As soon as he delivered his message, Pheidippides keeled over from exhaustion and died.

Yet they continue to put themselves through the pain and misery of running what is now the standard of 26.22 miles. In fact, the marathon was an event at the very first modern Olympics in 1896 and has continued to be featured in every summer Olympic competition since. Not only is the marathon a standard, but it’s also escalated way beyond that. Take, for instance, the “ultramarathoners” who take it to the next level and run a distance that’s commonly 50 or 100 miles or kilometers, or Dean Karnazes, who recently ran 50 marathons, in all 50 states, in 50 consecutive days. Why do runners feel this need to perform these insane acts?

As a runner, I can guarantee you that I’m not a masochist, and I doubt that most long distance runners are either. Maybe it’s the endorphins. Those little happy polypeptides cause quite the “runner’s high,” but something tells me that no amount of opiates are going to make someone feel better after running 26.2 miles. Although a study published in 1996 found that the risk of a fatal heart attack within 24 hours of finishing the marathon is only 1 in 50,000, or an “extremely small” risk, the other pain endured during, and in the days following the race, is another story. I recently witnessed my first finish of a marathon and, let me tell you, it’s not a pretty sight.

Minus those few souls who train their whole lives to run marathons competitively, everyone hits a point at about 23 miles where the only way they can move their bodies is with a shuffle of sorts. Just the memory of the pain while crossing the finish line should be enough to turn someone off of running that distance for a lifetime. Or so you would think.

I think the main attraction of distance running is that it’s an individual sport – the satisfaction comes from improving upon your past performance. Every time you finish, there’s a drive to improve upon what you just did. At the end of the race, a runner can’t help but say to him or herself, “If I had just [insert unwarranted self-criticism here], then my time would have been just a little bit better.” While this sounds slightly depressing, it’s the beauty of running. The biggest accomplishment for a runner is a PR – a personal record. Every race is a race against the clock. The largest pressure is that from yourself. Each individual has his or her own running experience and motivation different from that of any other runner, making the ordeal a personal experience.

Side note – not only does the actual execution of running make it an enjoyable activity, but runners are also considerate. If you choose not to make running a purely individualistic activity, there is a special charm about running in a race. Runners understand an unspoken etiquette. When participating in a contest, it’s understood that the slower runners move out of the way in order to make room for those moving at a faster pace, once again showing respect for the back motivation of running.

Every year, thousands upon thousands of runners suffer through 26.22 miles of agony. Well, hopefully not all 26.22 miles are agony, but, nevertheless, it’s amazing just how many people are willing to compromise their bodies for the sake of sticking that “26.2” bumper sticker on the back of their car. This year’s Boston Marathon had 20,338 finishers – and that was on a day with inclement weather – and the New York City Marathon had nearly 40,000 finishers. This doesn’t even cover all the tiny marathons held every day around the country with only a few hundred runners up to several thousand. All these people join the lemming-like brainwashing of participating in a marathon.

Only making it up to a half marathon myself, I have yet to make the plunge into the world of marathon running, but, somehow, I can see the draw. There’s something about that ability to say “I did it” that gives an odd sense of satisfaction. Ask any runner to explain, and I doubt that they’ll be able to, but they’ll assure you that the pain is worth it in the end. Whatever it is, though, it propels runners to do things they would never consciously choose to do. Maybe it’s the endorphins; maybe it’s a touch of insanity; or maybe, just maybe, it’s that bit of masochism.

Philbrick is a member of the class of 2009.

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