What Only .1% of Us Realize: Running a Marathon Brings Joy
This week I assigned my English students the task of writing a Cause and Effect Paper which entails asking a question starting with "Why" and then solving that question. To get them thinking I showed them the first hour of the documentary, "Hood to Coast," where four teams are followed during an overnight 200-mile relay race from Mt. Hood to the Pacific Coast. I then proceeded to tell them that I've run several relays and marathons. I asked them to ponder, "What causes human being to register for these events?" My smarter students simply turned the question back to me: "Why do you run them Ms. Woodward?" Perhaps they were ready for their minds to turn off, but I would like to think that they were truly curious. Therefore, here is brief analysis of the cause and effect of endurance running:
The Effect: A person (and in my case - a female in her 30s) registers for a marathon, an overnight relay race, or even crazier, a 100-mile trail run.
The Causes: In order to seek camaraderie, and on a deeper spiritual plane to access something beyond himself or herself (be it an emotional escape or a supernatural encounter).
My endurance running began when I finally registered for a local 5k race in my mid-20s. A friend challenged me to run with her so mainly it was a social experience. At the time, however, I was processing the weight of adult responsibilities as well as the extra twenty pounds I had gained since college. Therefore, I took up running in road races and training for road races as a challenge to get in shape and connect with others. Two years after this first race, I registered and ran in my first marathon in order to process the grief of losing my father at a premature age due to cancer. I trained with Team in Training, an organization that raises money to fight the cancer that killed my father. As I completed longer and longer Saturday training runs, I receded deeper and deeper into my grief. Higher mileage and fatigue seems to bring your emotions to the surface and I was no exception. My pace was so slow that no one else competed that first 20 mile by my side. I ran ten miles and at the turn around on a suburban street corner I pumped my fist in the air as if to say, "F. you cancer." and "I'll not forget you Dad." I turned around and ran ten miles back. I finished the last few steps to a few claps from my coach who had been waiting and was more than ready to head home. It did not matter, his lack of enthusiasm or the lack of a crowd; I had gained self-esteem and a release from my grief that day. So much so that the actual race itself a month later came as an anti-climax to the "deeper spiritual release”, I'd attained during my training - though it was also cathartic.
My story connects to the stories of many other female endurance athletes with their own if not similar motivations for running long distances. In 1984, Joan Benoit-Samuelson, who I have met and congratulated, was the first woman to win gold in the marathon in the Olympics; up until that year, many believed that the event was too strenuous for the female body and thus masochistic to include at the games. Joan ran it easily and left the competition far behind her proving the fears outlandish and thus behind us. More recently, the first human being to run continuously three hundred miles was female. Pam Reed outran a male competitor to this historic world record revealing that the female body cannot only handle long distances; it may in fact be more competitive at extreme distances than men. Continue on this strong female accomplishment, it might not be long before more women compete in marathons nationwide then men. "According to Running USA's 2013 Marathon Report, women have gone from being just 11% of all marathon finishers in 1980 to 42% in 2012" (Runners World). A more detailed website crunched all the numbers from marathons in the last 40 years to highlight how many more runners (male and female) now run endurance races then in years past. "In 2012, there were an estimated 850 U.S. marathons, a record high, compared to approximately 300 marathons in 2000 (Running USA). Looking closer at the female demographic, 35% of female runners are age 25-34 and the median age of a female marathon is 35 and has been for the last decade (Running USA).
I fit within this data as I have run several half-marathons, marathons, and endurance relays during this exact age range. During this same time I have started my career, dealt with the economic Recession, enjoyed and yet processed a decade of marriage, and given birth to three children. Despite these stressors and perhaps, due to them, I have eagerly participated in these running events. American women who do marry do so at around a median age of 27, according to the US Census in 2011. However, "the median age of first birth for a woman is now 25.7," which clear places many births and almost a majority of first children as being born out of wedlock in the US (Castillo). A study by Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, summarizes that this adversely affects mothers with lower education more than mothers who completed college. While women and men are waiting to get married until they are older perhaps due to economic challenges, this delay has seemed to only benefit those who were already fairly financially stable (CNN News).
All this being said, if women in America are choosing to run endurance races in record numbers despite being in an age group prone to a new marriage, a new baby, and perhaps a new career (and all not necessarily in that pretty order) then they are doing so in response to life’s stressors and not due to a surplus of time on their hands. Women who run in a local running group in Elk Grove, California when studied appear to be between age 25 - 65 (most in their 30s and 40s). Many are married and most have children. The runs are often a time to talk about the stressors of balancing many roles in American society, which often now requires women to both work and keep the "home fires burning."
Beyond this sought camaraderie, however intense, endurance racing at the highest level requires a deeper cause. In an interview with Reiko Cyr, a woman who has won several 100 mile endurance races and most recently completed the Western States 100 in under 24 hours, I discovered a truer cause. My question: Why do you run 100 mile races over difficult to say the least terrain, in the middle of the night? Reiko's answer:
"Running really is both bonding and cathartic. I had a friend who once remarked that he didn't like running because it was a solitary sport and unlike a team sport (which he played a lot of), wasn't social. But it's not true at all. It's amazing how much you get to know someone if you run with them. And it is also a personal journey... I was curious about 100 mile races because frankly I was hoping it would strip away all the noise and allow me to hear God or a higher consciousness or what ever one calls it. I wanted a sign or some affirmation. In two of the races I experienced profound joy and connection with everything and everyone. I remember crying with joy at the Buffalo Run and being in love with everything. It sounds kind of crazy. Who knows, maybe it was low blood sugar...but maybe not!"
While Reiko’s blood sugar certainly does lag during a 24 hour race and has left her at times seeing and hearing imaginary people in the middle of the night, her sense of joy at the end of her race is not an isolated occurrence.In the documentary, "Hood to Coast," one mother gathers a team full of her son's old college friends. Her son died prematurely and unexpectedly at age 30 during the previous year. They run as a team with his face on their running shirts and vans. After her middle of the night run, the mother hugs her remaining and living son crying, "I felt him out there with me you know?" Just like Reiko Cyr who was seeking "a sign" or "some affirmation" she ended the race with a feeling of "profound joy." In every endurance race that I have run I have experienced that the longer the event the more profound the joy at the end. Middle-of-the-night relay runs often leave me, as well as my teammates, elated and full of energy. Another runner from the documentary, the Team Captain of “Thunder and Laikening,” previously not a runner, states after her night run, “I wished it would never end.” This elation comes to all runners as the inevitable payoff of the race once it is successfully completed; along the way other little joys and surprising "affirmations" or "God moments" often surface as well.
Despite this payoff over 99.9% of American’s last year chose to NOT run a marathon; running magazines and running culture may have led to an increase in marathon registrations but 518,000 in 2011 is still only .1% of the population. (Running USA). Even more daunting is that fact that only 70,000 of people complete 100 mile races each year (Wiki); if we assumed that all were American, that would be only .02% of Americans. Therefore, more people need to know about the positive stress release and final elation that comes at the end of these endurance races. If with the medal at the end of 100 miles, or 26.5 miles, or an overnight epic 200 mile relay race comes an inevitable moment of "profound joy" the question is no longer, "Why do people run these races?" The question should instead by that with an effect so grand why don't more people run them?
Castillo, Michelle. "Almost half of first babies born to unwed mothers." CBS News.
"Running USA Annual Marathon Report." Running USA. Web. March. 2013.
“First Births.” American Community Survey 2011. Census Gov. Web. 2011.
"Ultramarathoning." Wikipedia. Web. Aug. 2013.