Growing army of marathon runners continue to confound the sceptics

Some 15,000 runners will put themselves through the special test in Dublin on Monday

Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto crosses the line in Berlin as he completes the fastest marathon in history – his 2:02:57 breaking the 2:03-barrier for the first time. Photo: Tobias Schwarz/Getty

Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto crosses the line in Berlin as he completes the fastest marathon in history – his 2:02:57 breaking the 2:03-barrier for the first time. Photo: Tobias Schwarz/Getty

 

Some people still think of it as a sort of annual mass street demonstration in support of capital running punishment. What, they ask, are those sick people running for? Why would anyone punish themselves so brutally for 26.2 gut-busting miles through the streets of any capital city, especially in a race where hardly of them have the slightest chance of winning?

Some people will always think that way about the Dublin Marathon. Only they are now part of the minority. Because the fastest-growing sector of world sport continues to be these mass participation events, the marathon still chief among them, and Monday’s race is just another perfectly understandable demonstration of it all.

Indeed Dublin’s entry of around 15,000 runners, including around 4,000 foreign entries, from 47 countries, is up again on last year, despite the fact nearly every other city and large town in the country – from Belfast to Dingle – also now stages a marathon of its own.

The same goes for almost every big city marathon in the world. Last year, the New York Marathon, with its 50,266 finishers, was the largest in marathon running history. And, according to Runner’s World magazine, there were 1,100 marathon races staged across the US last year, compared to around 300, back in 2000. The combined total of marathon finishers in the US alone is now well over half a million each year: that’s a lot of 26.2-mile running for a lot of people.

The appeal

There is still no easy way of explaining the appeal of running a marathon. But then running any long distance means breaking into a part of the physical and psychological hinterland that none one of us will ever fully understand.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t still some differing opinion over what exactly constitutes running a marathon. On one hand, it’s still as much about the time as it is the distance; on the other hand, it’s all about the distance and nothing do to with the time. Most marathon runners actually fall somewhere in between, and consider both the time and the distance. But should one be ever mutually exclusive from the other?

Last month, in Berlin, Dennis Kimetto ran the fastest marathon in history – his 2:02:57 breaking the 2:03-barrier for the first time, and reigniting the great debate about if, or indeed when, the two-hour barrier will be broken. My guess is it will be later rather than sooner.

For now, Kimetto’s 2:02:57 should be taken for exactly what it is – the single most amazing display of sustained human athleticism this year. Especially as just over two years ago, Kimetto was a peasant farmer, struggling to make ends meet by cultivating and selling maize and potatoes at the local market of the remote Kapng’etuny village, in the heart of the Kenyan Rift Valley.

Kimetto would run around Kapng’etuny for pleasure, as many Kenyans do, although he never once dreamed of attaining elite status. That all changed when he was spotted by some elite Kenyans, including two-time New York Marathon winner Geoffrey Mutai, who invited him to join their training group. Kimetto soon outtrained and then outraced them, winning both the Tokyo and Chicago marathons last year, his 2:02:57 in Berlin last month also ensuring he’ll never have to work on the farm again.

Running track

It’s hard to explain just how fast 2:02:57 actually is, even to those who have run a marathon. It means averaging less than 70 seconds per lap of the running track – or 69.93 seconds, to be exact – for 105 continuous laps, and not many people I know could run one lap in under 70 seconds. It’s also averaging 4:41.5 per mile, or 14:34.9 for every 5km. Kimetto also passed halfway in 61:45, finished in 61:12, and ran 30-35km in 14:10. That is motoring fast.

Some folk think running the marathon in four hours, or six hours, or even slower, is somehow equivalent or comparable to 2:02:57, at least in the psychological if not physical terms. The distance certainly doesn’t get any shorter, no matter how slow or fast its run.

Yet trying to distance the time from the distance itself can only demean the marathon, or any distance run, as if the likes of Roger Bannister, Emil Zatopek and Haile Gebrselassie were all wasting their efforts. It’s not a bad thing to believe the distance can always be run quicker, 3 whether they’re trying for two hours, four hours, or whatever.

Parts of Dublin just about tolerate Monday’s race rather embrace it, or else, like RTÉ, don’t seem to fully appreciate its value, so bundle it into a news package, rather than cover it live. Because ultimately, in the long run, no one comes away from a marathon without being in a fitter, healthier and more productive physical and psychological state than before they started – also inspiring others to do so, even if that just means starting into the training.

What kind of sick people don’t understand that?

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