Marathon running – a sport for losers?


Losers! (Photo:

When I was training for my first marathon, in 2004, my boss at the time told me that her husband was also a keen runner. “He does marathons too,” she told me, “though he says it’s strange to enter a race that you know you won’t win.”

This struck me at the time and has stayed in my mind ever since.

At the 2012 Paris Marathon I lined up at the start, on the Champs-Élysées, in a field of 40,000 entrants. If we estimate that there were 50 elite athletes competing seriously to win the men’s or the women’s race, then that means the other 39,950 of us were running in full knowledge that we weren’t going to win. For example, I was aiming to finish in under 3 hours 30 minutes – so I knew that even at my best I would be around an hour and a half behind the winner. (This is how it turned out – Stanley Biwott won the men’s category in 2:05:10, and I crossed the line 87 minutes later.)

And still I entered the race, even though for me it was not a race in any meaningful sense – I was not a serious challenger to Biwott or the others who competed for first place. The concept of winning that marathon simply didn’t exist in my world.

In nearly all other sports, you play to win. The most casual football game, in the local park and with jumpers for goalposts, is a battle for victory, even if it ends in a draw. Cycling domestiques sacrifice their own chances to ensure a team leader wins – because that is their job. Similarly, in track athletics meetings a pacemaker sets up a record attempt, and is hired to do so.

But the marathon (and derivatives such as the triathlon and ultramarathon) must be a rare sport where 99% of its participants never win, never come close to winning and never even conceive of winning.

If we want to run 26.2 miles as fast as possible, why do we need to enter a race against professional athletes? If we applied the same logic to football, all park kickarounds would only be training for when we enter the Champions League final every year to play against Bayern Munich. Marathons are strange.

Maybe it’s my European jaded cynicism, but a small part of me always resists the notion that a marathon is a race against myself. If I meet a fellow runner who has a better marathon personal best than me, I will seethe internally with spite and envy, before rationalising that this person obviously cut the route and used cheap mail-order E.P.O.

So, I’m competing against the other runners in my race and also against every other runner in every other marathon ever.

None of this will stop me running marathons, of course. I’m a loser, baby!

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7 Responses to Marathon running – a sport for losers?

  1. Red Hen says:

    Very interesting and well written post. I think the ones who want to win the race are the true athletes-like you. The rest of us claim victories in the tiniest little things-getting there, beating our PBs, finishing the race, getting to follow in the footsteps of real athletes-winning means different things to different people.

  2. Aidan says:

    You have hit upon the classic conundrum of athletics, performance versus outcome. Running is a rare sport where celebrating a strong performance in defeat is not taken as some sort of damning with faint praise. Thus Farah won more plaudits arguably for his recent 1500 run than the winner, who ran one of the fastest times ever himself.
    Personally the performance has usually trumped the result. The modest results I earned as an athlete at my peak really only meant something if I rated the opponents. Sounds silly in retrospect but I probably did myself down plenty of times, no one decent raced, it was just a novice or b race, some of the field were juniors or whatever I would tell myself. So my favourite track race ever is not one I won but is my 800m PB where I think I finished 2nd last. The value of any result to me was indicated by the time required to achieve it to a certain extent because that was an indication of how difficult it was to get.
    This poses a strange motivational problem these days. I’m now a veteran with a hectic life who runs to build and maintain fitness after some major trauma injuries in the last few years. Time, age, reconstructed knee and foot and various bits and bobs means I cannot realistically train at a level to match times I ran in my 20s. I’m currently about 30-60 secs a mile off my very best times. Its hard to get excited about that other than feeling good about feeling fit, its nowhere near fast enough to top ten in a local road race and the prospect of a vets prize is no motivation. Recently I read Murikami and was struck by the idea of how we ultimately compete against ourselves. Allied to a comment from my wife following my first 10k in years that I had to remember I was a runner with a smashed up foot and knee I have found a new motivation in just bettering myself no matter what my starting point is. So last year I entered my first official half marathon. I ran 92 mins, not bad but short of any specific prep. This year’s goal is to go sub 90, that will require a sub 40 10k soon and so on. That’s what pushes me on. That’s what drags me out of bed at 6.30 to train when my son is asleep or motivates me to run a few kms in a half hour lunch break because its better than drinking tea.

    • Run and Jump says:

      Some excellent points there. In track running you’re notionally competing against other runners of the same level, so it’s a truer race than if I’m in the same city marathon as an elite athlete.

      I agree that I’m running against myself: that is, against my PB. But I also want to have a better PB than any runner I happen to meet 🙂

  3. That’s also the great thing about running, that you do get to take part in the same event as elite runners whereas you are never going to play football against Man. Utd. Also I think each event has many different races going on at the same time – there is the race to win overall, and there are the individual races against people’s won PBs. But there are also the undeclared races between peers, so you get a sense of who those at a similar level to you are and find yourself competing with them even if you hardly notice you are doing it.

    • Run and Jump says:

      Yes, the idea that (should the entry lottery go my way) I can run in the same London Marathon as Mo Farah gives me a real kick!

      Good point re: many races going on within the same marathon. That said, if Mo wants to win the London Marathon he’ll have to beat me to do it!

  4. Aidan says:

    The prospect of lining up with Mo is exciting for many, many runners I’m sure. I can’t think of another sport where you can do it. Triathlons, maybe but elites usually have a different wave so a different race. In London there are literally different races within the race. Its the Welsh championships for example so you might find yourself next to someone an hour behind the winner pushing for a result. Then there are the local battles, the club records, the training buddies. We all need some motivation. I don’t think its a case of real v fun runners. We are all real runners, just some of us are more competitive, fitter etc at different times.

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