Carl Cervone

Running the wrong marathon

January 2, 2024

Last November a good friend of mine ran his first marathon. He’d been training for months. Whenever we met up, I’d ask him how the training was going. He’d tell me about the long runs, the sore muscles, the dietary restrictions, the early mornings. He tracked everything in an app. Each week he saw he was making progress.

I went to see him run the marathon. It was an ideal day for running, crisp and partly cloudy. We made a banner and waited for him at the seven-mile mark, at the corner of 3rd and 3rd, a few blocks from my apartment in Brooklyn. The roadside was packed with spectators.

I’ve seen the NYC marathon several times and am always struck by the diversity of the runners. There are people of all ages, shapes, sizes, and abilities. As a spectator, you feel the impulse to cheer and high-five every runner who passes by.

Watching the marathon is one of those moments that makes you proud to be a New Yorker. The whole city shuts down for a half a day and comes out to watch. Millions of dollars are raised for charity. When the race is over, the party moves from the streets to the bars and afterparties. The endorphins are infectious.

All of this left me with a very strong desire to run the marathon this year, in 2024. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve considered it.

Why marathons are overrated

I’ll come back to my reasons for wanting to run a marathon. (They’re the usual get in better shape, be healthier, live longer, etc.) But first, let’s talk about why marathons are overrated.

For starters, marathons are a ridiculous time commitment. Most marathon plans are 16-20 weeks and require 4-6 hours of training per week. That’s about 100 hours total. It is almost comparable to being a part-time college student.

It would be one thing if you were spending 4-6 hours per week doing a range of activities that improved your overall health. But long-distance running is a very specific activity. It’s great for your legs and lungs, but it’s not a full-body workout.

Moreover, the payoffs in terms of improved strength, stability, or even cardiovascular health aren’t all that great. I’m not saying that marathons are net-negative in any of these areas. Just that long-distance running is less effective at boosting overall health than most other serious fitness activities like yoga, swimming, rock climbing, kickboxing, weightlifting, etc. And these activities require a much smaller time commitment.

There are also some studies linking marathon running to increased risk of arthritis, stress fractures, heart damage, and a weakened immune system. I won’t get into the specifics, but there’s a growing body of evidence that marathon running can have adverse effects on certain health dimensions.

The other peculiar thing about marathons is that the distance of 26.2 miles or 49.195 km is completely arbitrary. The eponymous long route from Marathon to Athens was only about 25 miles (~40 km) long. Indeed, this was the distance of the first Olympic marathon in 1896. However, the distance was extended in 1908 to 26.2 miles to accommodate Queen Alexandra’s request that the race start on the lawn of Windsor Castle and finish in front of the royal box at the Olympic stadium. It’s strange that this specific, arbitrary distance has become such a powerful meme. At least the 10,000 steps per day meme is a nice, memorable, round number (even if it’s just as arbitrary).

To recap: marathons are exceptionally time-consuming, not exceptionally good for health, and wholly arbitrary.

Why we love marathons

We love marathons because they give us a black and white goal to achieve AND we know that this goal can only be achieved by putting in steady, compounding work. This is the power of unambiguous, easy-to-measure stretch goals.

If you are a novice runner, there is no shortcut to going from 5K to 25K. You need to put in the hours. After every long run, you feel the burn in your legs – and you know you have to do a bit more next week. It’s a constant feedback loop. Because the gains are compounding, once you do your first 10K, it seems inconceivable that a 5K could ever have been a challenge. For goal-oriented folks, logging steady incremental progress is a helluva drug.

Equally important is the fact that marathons are events that participants have to sign up for months in advance. A non-negotiable deadline takes away the excuses and forces you to stay on track. The deliverable – covering a distance of 26.2 miles on foot – is the same regardless of age, gender, body shape, day of the week, weather, location. These hard requirements apply to everyone at every marathon.

Another reason we love marathons is because they come with heaps of accountability and social pressure. Not only did you sign up for an event, but you also told everyone you know that you are running a marathon. You’ve probably been posting about it on social media. You’ve probably been talking about it at work. You’ve probably even raised money for a charity and hit up everyone in your addresss book for donations. All of this makes it very hard to back out.

Our brains convince us to love marathons and push through even when it starts getting really hard on our bodies.

Putting in continuous effort towards something exceptionally hard is the right reason to run a marathon. It should be cause for celebration.

But most of us are running the wrong marathon.

Why we run the wrong marathon

When we want to improve ourselves, marathons are the first thing we pull off the shelf because they are so well-packaged. They are a complete product, comprised of essentially one active ingredient: running. And we turn to this one ingredient to solve a host of general conditions.

My primary motivation for wanting to run a marathon is to be healthier. I want to burn off excess fat, improve my cardiovascular health, and live longer. I also love the idea of “earning” a weekend full of guilt-free pizza and beer.

But if I were to approach accomplishing these goals from first principles, there is no way I would determine that running 26.2 miles on pavement is the best way to achieve them.

We run the wrong marathon because we have a general sense that there are things we want to improve in our life but no system for tracking progress and staying accountable to putting in the work.

The power of marathons is that they come with lots of structure and accountability out of the box. We crave this structure and accountability whenever we set out to improve ourselves. We yearn for feedback loops and motivation to keep putting in steady progress even when it seems we’ve plateaued or regressed. We’ve all set goals that we’ve failed to achieve.

Most of the good things in life are marathons, the result of tiny gains compounded over many, many iterations. Very few have an app or training plan to keep you on track, or a black-and-white deliverable that comes with a medal when you reach the finish line. This is what makes these other “marathons” so hard to achieve.

How to run the right marathon

Running the right marathon means picking a worthy goal and constructing a system for measuring and staying accountable to steady progress. This is easy to say but exceptionally hard to do.

I don’t have a good blueprint for how to do this. In retrospect, I can see that I’ve run my share of “marathons” in domains like learning new languages, playing musical instruments, and building technical skills. In most cases, I didn’t start down any of these paths by viewing them as marathon endeavors.

The only common thread I’ve found to choosing the right marathon is to be open to new experiences and, if something feels right, put more time into it. Then, create some real accountability that forces you to improve. It’s incredible how we somehow manage to find 4-6 hours per week to put into something when we view it as non-negotiable or highly enjoyable.

There’s value in chasing an arbitrary number. If you can reduce your goal to a simple but hard to game metric, then you can measure progress and hold yourself accountable. But make sure the number you’re chasing truly correlates to a goal that is meaningful to you. If not, then you’re probably running the wrong marathon.

In my case, I’d like to run a marathon this year. I just haven’t chosen the right one yet

(Disclaimer: I ran a half-marathon several years ago and it was awesome.)