Organised Masochism – Why Do We Run Marathons?

At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, the marathon was won by Dorando Pietri of Italy. However he did not take home the gold medal.

Pietri had started out at a steady pace but sped up in the second half when he realised his main competitors were struggling. In the final 2k, he began to feel the effects of fatigue and dehydration. Once he entered the hastily built White City Stadium, the site of the finish line, in his confused state he began to run the wrong way round the track and had to be redirected by officials, who also then helped him as he collapsed several times from the effort of running the new distance of 26 miles and 385 yards.

Pietri crosses the line in London, 1908

Despite his complete exhaustion, he crossed the line first. His finishing time was 2:54:46, with the final ten minutes of that time being to cover that final 385 yards.

Pietri’s literally staggering achievement was taken away from him, however, when second placed Jonny Hayes of America and his team complained that Pietri had been given help. The complaint was upheld and Pietri was disqualified, officially placing nowhere. Queen Mary presented him with a special silver gilt cup the next day to make up for it, as it really wasn’t Pietri’s fault; he was in no fit state to refuse the help and had completed the race regardless.

I first heard this story a few weeks ago, when I went to White City for a work related visit and saw the commemorations of the 1908 Games, including a marker on the pavement of where the finish line was. I’ve been thinking about Pietri a lot in the time since. Admittedly, he was training for the marathon back in the days before advanced sports science, shoes to fix pronation issues and gels were there to help us along. But his story illustrates just how hard it is to run a marathon, and how much it can take out of you to run it to the best of your abilities.

Before the 1908 Games, the marathon distance wasn’t set. The International Olympic Committee had agreed the year before that the distance for the Olympic race should be about 25 miles, but the London organisers added on an extra mile to allow the race to begin outside the nursery windows at Windsor Castle, at the request of one of the royal Princesses. They then added an extra 385 yards to make sure the King got the best seat in the house to see Pietri and his competitors cross the line. A strange way to set a competitive racing distance perhaps, but this distance was ratified in 1921 by the IAAF as a direct result of the London Games.

More and more people are running marathons, especially now it has become acceptable to get round them at a slower pace or to run/walk the distance. There are a lot of runners who start from scratch to run a marathon for charity. Thinking particularly of the huge charity contingent at London, how many of those people toeing the line in their rainbow of running vests were novices just a few short months earlier?

London Marathon charity runners

It is absolutely possible to train from scratch to run a marathon if you have a spare 4 to 5 months for the training, but even those of us who have been running shorter distances for years with a decent baseline fitness level and a cluster of halfs under our belts find the going tough.

For many newbie marathoners, poor initial baseline fitness and then jumping to 30 plus miles a week can lead to injury from repetitive motion or intensity. You can still get round on the day, but is it worth it? Why do we put ourselves through this?

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is because I am finding my training tough at the moment. I am tired. Dog tired. My legs feel like lead all the time and my brain is fatigued. I feel it would be wise  to start adding naps into my training plan, but realistically can only do this at the weekends. I am trying to compromise by planning my 20 milers for days when I can take a day off after to rest up and recover. For someone who didn’t even take naps as a toddler, this seems a bit extreme.

Every run I have at the moment, even the shorter ones, feels tough. This training block feels at least twice as hard as my training for Rome. I’m aware that was a winter training block, and this is summer. Yes, it’s warm out, but it has been since the start of my plan and I really do think I am now getting used to it, so I don’t think that’s it!

I am also training at faster paces all round, so that might be adding to the general feeling of it being a constant slog, but again I am not suddenly trying to leap up to a 9 minute mile for marathon pace.

Is it just me? Am I just not built to run marathons, not good enough for it?

Having done a bit of reading up, it seems like it really is a case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, from our friend the marathon.

The human body imposes natural limitations on the distance we can run easily.  Twenty miles is about the furthest we can go comfortably, even if we are well trained, before we begin to run out of fuel and our muscles begin to hurt.  The marathon distance is exquisitely set to take us beyond our comfort zone, into a realm in which we confront the limitations of our bodies and our minds.  We complete the marathon distance only by patient preparation and mental discipline.  There are no short cuts, no easy ways out.  The marathon takes us up to, and beyond, the limit of human endurance, into an unknown zone where we confront our true selves, and discover our inner strengths and limits.

Running for Fitness, Owen Barder

So according to this author, there just isn’t a way around the fact that the marathon will take its toll on you on race day, no matter how carefully you train and how much extra strength and recovery work you put in.

I’m not so sure about this though, otherwise how would people run ultras? There are fellow bloggers who may be reading this who run 50k plus on a semi regular basis, so clearly they do find 26 miles to be at least partly within their comfort zone.

Another article I came across suggested that during training you should absolutely expect to feel tired all the time, because marathon training actually works by running on tired legs as a matter of course, so you can keep going under ‘accumulated fatigue’. Basically every time you run and your body gets tired, you go for another run before your body has had time to get completely un-tired, so you just keep on adding workout after workout onto your sleepy legs and brain in order that when you reach that 20 mile threshold you have tricked your brain into thinking it’s a grand plan to carry on.

This article also made the valid and very helpful point that there is little point aiming for PB’s at shorter distances when marathon training, because to really crush it at that 5k, 10k or half you probably don’t want legs that are half asleep the whole time or a brain which can’t make sense of the route markers. It advises that:

To train for the marathon correctly, you need to temporarily neglect the specific training demands of shorter events.

That’s a little frustrating. I have made my peace with the fact that I am not likely to be hitting my non-track 5k and new 10k targets anytime during the summer when marathon training, but I was hoping to get my Xempo yellow times ticked off between now and the London marathon at the end of April next year. If this article is correct, that might be a tad ambitious if I go through with this plan of three marathons within a year (which I absolutely intend to do, although I may then give myself the rest of 2017 off any run longer than 13.1 miles!).

Ever the stubborn runner, I am still hoping to PB at one of the two halfs I have in September (they are part of my plan, honest!), but having read this I may stop daydreaming about making it to a sub-2 finish. I will probably aim for the far more realistic 2:05 mark.

So with all these negatives under consideration, is my sleepy brain right when it tells me lately that there must be something better to do with my time, and why the hell are we getting up at 6am to run 18 miles on a Friday morning?

Well no, actually. Despite being in a serious attitude slump in my head, I know in my heart that it is definitely worth it.

Last time I was training, race day was the great unknown. I have a sneaking suspicion that this time I am actually just a little scared, because now I’ve done it once I know how tough it is. I’m trying to go from ‘I once ran a marathon’ to ‘I run marathons’, and I’m also trying to get quite a lot faster. I’ll still be slow, but I want to go sub-4:30 instead of sub-5. So the question my poor tired subconscious is asking really is…what if I can’t do that? What if I can’t make the upgrade from officially slow plodder to decently average runner?

And the answer, if I’m honest, is so what? I would love to go sub-4:30, but if I don’t then really, truly, so what? I know I can cover the distance. I have read enough about New York to know it will be an amazing experience. The race also falls on my birthday and I will go up an age category, so whatever happens my age grading will improve as long as I keep things under 4:55.


Completing a marathon might be a stupid thing to do on paper, but it’s an amazing testament to the human spirit. It’s tiring. It hurts. It messes with your head. You might come to a complete stock still halt for no reason and have to force yourself to keep going. You might fall. It’s highly likely that you’ll be in tears at least once.

Plenty of people just want the privilege of the feeling when you cross that line and get the medal placed around your neck. Significantly less than 1% of the world’s population ever run a marathon, so it’s a pretty exclusive gang.

Running a marathon is a massive challenge, but that means it comes with a massive reward.

You get to battle against your own common sense and come away victorious, physically and mentally stronger than you were at the start.

You get to prove something to yourself and to other people who might have doubted you, or thought you were crazy.

You get to be in the coolest gang around. And that does make it worth it, in the end.

7 thoughts on “Organised Masochism – Why Do We Run Marathons?

  1. It’s interesting that you blogged about being fatigued. I skipped one of my shorter runs yesterday to give my body a rest for my longer run this weekend. Hope you get the rest you need to continue! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Even contemplating a marathon makes you a superhero in my reckoning. Getting up at 6am confirms it. You are doing amazing training and keeping up a full time job. Take a nap if you feel you need it – just not at work.
    I feel a real wuss as I’m tired with my training and it’s nowhere near as arduous as yours.
    Take a bow, and think about how fabulous New York is going to be.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not up to marathon distance yet (will I ever?) but I know that when contemplating my second half marathon one fear, that I took a while to even admit to myself, was the fear of getting worse, not better.

    And that came true, but I know why. I didn’t respect the distance enough and I was carrying an injury.

    I’m now thinking about my third half….. Back to the one I ran first. But what if I can’t beat my time?

    Doesn’t training like this take a lot of mental strength? And that is what you are drawing on now when your physical strength is at a low ebb.

    I admire you for the challenges you are setting yourself and I’m slightly jealous of the sense of achievement you will have afterwards!

    Liked by 1 person

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