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!