Reader Question: What is a Marathon?

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A Quora member recently asked this deceptively simple question, “what is a marathon?”. Just what constitutes “a marathon” is a source of confusion for many runners new to the sport as well as for people not involved in the sport. Below is my attempt to explain the issues and hopefully resolve the confusion. Enjoy! 

Within the sport of Track & Field (Athletics for all you non-Americans) a marathon is a foot race of the standard distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. The story behind the odd distance has to do with the 1908 Olympic marathon finish line placement, which made the course come out to that distance. The then governing body of the sport later adopted this distance for all marathons and it has been so since. Had the Games not been moved to London for 1908, the marathon distance probably would have eventually been standardized at 40k or 25 miles, or possibly left as it was for each race to determine.

But the confusion over ‘what is a marathon’ also stems from the fact that the word marathon, like many words, has more than one definition. We runners and track fans cringe when someone says they ran a “5k marathon”; no, you ran a 5k, not a marathon. However, one of the definitions of ‘marathon’, that long predates the adoption of the official marathon distance in Track & Field, is simply “any long distance running race”. Of course there are other uses of the word ‘marathon’ which are used for any event that requires prolonged endurance of one kind or another, such as a dance marathon, a sales marathon, or even a ‘marathon meeting’ (one that drags on for hours, or seems to).

One could therefore argue that technically, as purely a matter of grammar, a “5k marathon” is not incorrect. But of course since it is a running event, it is incorrect in that context. Personally, while I find it cringe worthy, I try to understand that the person saying it may be a new runner, so any correction should be gentle and constructive rather than of the “OMG, how dumb are you?” variety. We can’t expect people outside of – or brand new to – any field of endeavor to know its nomenclature and culture.

From what I have witnessed, actual race directors using terms like “10k marathon” to describe a race is more common in some parts of the world than others. I could be wrong, but this seems to be a fairly common practice in some Asian countries. In the US, you really only see it used by people putting on a race if they are having a charity fundraiser “5k Marathon”. Most serious runners know to stay away from these events, since they are probably not being conducted by someone who knows much about running as a sport, so there are often numerous problems (e.g., improperly marked and/or measured course, untrained volunteers, no traffic control, incorrect results, etc.)

I’m not sure if my answer directly relates to the reason the question was asked, but the subject comes up often enough that I hope my response is instructive to others who may be confused about the use of the word marathon.

 

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