Endurance athletes, by their nature, have an insatiable appetite for a challenge. Since the 1980s the marathon has attracted new runners and big city road races are over-subscribed every year. Demand has dictated supply and now there’s a whole range of races covering the bucket-list 26.2 miles
This article was first published in Sports Insight Magazine.
The marathon is an iconic distance with its history in ancient Greece. In recent years it’s come to represent bravery, courage, giving back, and of course endurance – making ordinary folk feel extraordinary.
Running, and endurance events have captured all our imaginations. Events such as parkrun (often the start of the journey for marathoners) have gone global, big city races are over-subscribed, and athletes are demanding more. Brands, event organisers and marketeers are responding and working hard to create the ultimate ‘athlete experience’. And social media fires up the enthusiasm as runners share their stories, living life on the edge, coming out of the comfort zone, and showing what’s possible.
Here’s seven ways to run a marathon:
- Road Races
The most popular way to run a marathon is on the road. You would be forgiven in thinking that all races lead to a road marathon. There are races in all our major cities, globally: London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Shanghi, Moscow. These big events are what many of us have come to associate with marathon running, and an entire industry has emerged around them, creating the mass participation in running that we see today, so with this much vested interest popularity will continue although with some new kids on the block growth is starting to decline in the UK and USA. However, it’s all relative, by 2016, over one million runners had crossed the finish line at London since its start in 1981, and the 2019 London marathon had a record 414,168 applicants. Growth in our well-travelled and connected world has expanded and recent research by Jens Jakob Andersen from Copenhagen Business School andrunrepeat.com(https://runrepeat.com/research-marathon-performance-across-nations)found that the biggest growth was in Russia (300 per cent), China (260 per cent) and the Philippines (212 per cent). Another growth area is amongst women (the drivers of family consumer decision making), Anderson’s study also found that 45.15 per cent of American marathon runners are women.
2. Off road Marathons
In our increasingly boxed-in, manufactured and sanitised lives, the call of nature has drawn more runners to try to complete the 26.2 on the trails, immersing themselves in a kind of mediation on the move. Killian Jornet writing in Athletics Weeklytalks about a desire for that connection with nature, and he adds: ‘Like road running, there are the social and fitness aspects,’ but he adds the need for focus and concentration is compelling, attracting more runners.
On a practical level, pounding the pavements without paying attention to your body, as many do, can lead to injury, taking runners off the tarmac and onto the trail. And of course there are ‘trail-blazing’ brands such as Red Bull, Merrell, Salomon and Saucony who have popularised adventure, and off-road events which often feature huge elevations and breath-taking landscapes. In the UK popular races take in beautiful landscapes such as the Endurance Life’s Coastal Trail marathon series or the Beachy Head Marathon which crosses over the Seven Sisters (white cliffs) of East Sussex and is regularly over-subscribed.
3. Relay Marathons
Alongside the growth of marathon running, has been the increased love of ultra marathons and all things bigger than a marathon. For many covering 26.2 miles or more as part of a relay team in the ultra context can satisfy the challenge-hunger. Events that have nailed this format include Endure 24, the ‘Glastonbury of running’, and the US import, Ragnar Relay. These events are staged over 24 hours, with teams running repeated laps, which can add up to the marathon distance. Hugely successful in the US, Ragnar has been brought into the UK in partnership with Brighton marathon organisers Grounded Events, describing itself as ‘the world’s largest series of overnight running relays’. A blog on their wesite, sums up why this format works: ‘Maybe you’re not really a runner. You’re actually that guy or girl who just loves the gym… Yeah, you’re “athletic.” But, you don’t “run.” Right?’
4. Marathon Tourism
Who doesn’t want to visit the wonders of the world, Athens, The Great Wall of China, New York, London? Well why not take in a marathon whilst you’re at it? Or why not take in a novelty race, such as the Marathon du Medoc, or Run Bacchus, where you can combine running 26.2 miles with cheese and wine?
An article in Tourism Review News (https://www.tourism-review.com/sports-tourism-revenue-growing-in-spain-news10466) points out that in the last decade, the tourist expenditure of international travellers who attended sports activities in general has increased by 41.5 per cent. And looking at Spain they point out that of the 20,100 participants in the last edition of the Barcelona Marathon, half were foreigners, in Valencia, 31 per cent of the participants were foreigners. Studies have shown empty-nesters have cash and like to spend it on travel, and as runners age it’s likely that this type of tourism will continue to flourish.
5. Marathon as a political movement
Many would argue that as runners get together in a big bundle of positive energy, there’s the power to change. What revolution was run by unfit fatties? In her thought for the day for BBC Radio 2, Reverend Kate Bottley said that parkrun was very similar to religion, people gather every week at a set time and support each other in a joint cause. The same for politics, get a group of people who are positive, striving together and tap into that energy and you have a movement. Worldwide, marathons with meaning are taking place. In the Uganda Marathon, runners are helping raising funds for local, sustainable community projects and actively helping out as part of the trip. The Beirut marathon has the theme of unity at its core, and includes a 3K race for politicians and members of the UN. Commercially, we’ve seen that the millennial consumer demands that brands work hard at their bigger purpose – watch this space for more ‘political’ marathons.
6. Super extreme marathons
From the Antartic to the desert – if you like extremes, there’s a marathon for you. At the Antarctic Ice Marathon temperatures can hit -20. How about the Baikal Ice marathon, in Russia, which takes place between two opposite shores of the world’s deepest lakes?The Marathon Des Sables, (although an ultra) is completed in the desert and described as the ‘toughest footrace on earth’. The Great Wall Marathon in China will take twice as long as a ‘normal’ race, but you get to see the monument in style. Run 1600ft underground in Sondershausenthrough a disused salt mine, or do the 26.2 miles on a track or treadmill. There’s no shortage of races for masochists!
7. Multiple Marathons
In 2016, Eddie Izzard completed 27 marathons in 27 days (not his first attempt) for Sport Relief, demonstrating how ordinary, not typically athletic types could use the power of the mind to overcome epic endurance challenges and do good. Strictly speaking running marathons day after day qualifies as an ultra, and very often ‘running’ is a term that can be loosely applied, however, more people on taking on the multiple (as well as ultra-distance races). Eddie’s not alone, there’s a plethora of films on Amazon Prime and Netflix and books celebrating multi-marathoners, ultra-runners, and long-distance triathletes. At the National Running Show last year (and coming up in 2019) a number of adventure and boundary-pushing runners, were featured speakers, reflecting a change in the consumer, inspired to hear about those who got out of their comfort zone.
(Footnote:You can also run a marathon if you do an Ironman; or cover the distance in a Swim Run event and now races like Spartan are making obstacle races marathon distance or more – their ultra-race is 50Km, 8K longer than a marathon. There will be more to come. Stay tuned!)