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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Reader Question: Are there any etiquette rules for running a 5k?

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Are there any etiquette rules for running a 5k?

This is a great question, and shows that you are a caring person in my opinion; otherwise you’d just go all ‘bull in a china shop’. 😉

“Common sense” goes a long way, but some runners who are inexperienced at participating in races might not think about certain points of etiquette. Given the popularity of ‘couch to 5K’ training programs (i.e. training programs that encourage sedentary or non-runners to take up the challenge of getting ready for their first 5K (3.1 mile) ‘fun run’ race, there are many first timers at most 5Ks. 

I will approach this answer from the standpoint of a first time, or fairly new, runner. Most of this will generally apply to whatever distance race you run, by the way.

Getting there.  Get to the race at least an hour before the start, and even a bit earlier if you are picking up your race packet (your number) on race day. This keeps the stress level down for you, and for the volunteers who have to scramble to get everyone checked in as race time approaches. Understand that most of the time races do start almost right at the stated time, with or without you. Don’t show up at 8:45 for a 9am start, in other words. You need time to get your number, pin it on, use the world famous port-o-potties (there will be a long line), snug up and double tie your shoelaces, and find your spot in the starting area.

Bib number. Pin your race number to the FRONT of your shirt (or shorts) so that it is clearly visible to race staff. It’s not the Olympics, so you don’t get a front and a back number. Also, some races still use the tear-off tag on the bottom of the number for recording finish place and time, so DON’T REMOVE THE TAG from the bib number, and do not put a safety pin through the tear-off tag itself. If they are using this system, be ready to give the volunteer at the finish line your tear-off tag quickly so that they can get to the next person behind you and keep the finish area from getting clogged up. (Most larger races now use timing chips, but small fun runs often use the tear-off tag or another low-tech system.) If your race uses a timing chip, make sure you follow the instructions for using it – some are built right into the number, but some have to be attached to your shoe laces.

Lining up. Be sure you have a decent understanding of how fast you will run, and line up in the starting corral accordingly. For example, if you have been running blazing fast times in your workouts and think you might finish in the top 10, then line up on the front row with the other speedsters. But if you have been doing a run/walk program and are not yet quite able to run the full distance, line up towards the back of the pack at the starting area. If you are somewhere in-between, then of course line up somewhere in the middle. (Gigantic races will usually seed you, so you line up where they tell you to; most smaller runs count on the runners to understand where they should start.) The smaller the race, the less critical this issue is, but you still don’t want to be up front if you aren’t ready to get swept up in a really fast start. It’s dangerous for you and the other runners if you get tripped up and fall. The start of a 5K can be pretty chaotic for a minute or two with all the kids that don’t know any better sprinting out ahead of everyone and then slowing down, and the real front runners dodging them and each other; you don’t want to be in that mess if you aren’t ready for it.

During the race. Just have fun and run your own race if it’s your first one. In a 5K there may or may not be a water station on the course (usually there is one at the half way point). If there is one, and you think you need water, how you approach it depends on where you are in the race; if you are up with the speedier overall or age-groupers, most won’t get water at all but those that do will not slow down to do so. They will just grab the cup, pinch the top to make a spout, and then pour most of it down the front of their shirt (not on purpose). If you are with the mellower paced crowd, you can usually just pick up a cup, thank the volunteers, drink it and put the cup in the trash can if there is one. (You’ll see a lot of littered cups on the ground, which the volunteers will pick up. This practice is pretty accepted in road races, but not in trail races, fyi. On the trail, you hang on to your trash until you find a trash can.)

Anyway, the main point of etiquette here is not to impede another runner at the water station (or anywhere else on the course), either by cutting them off or by suddenly stopping in front of them. Plan how you are going to approach the water station (and any walking breaks) and pay attention to what other runners around you are doing – if they are grabbing the cup while running, then you will need to do the same; you can walk if you need to after you get clear of the water station and aren’t in a place where you will be blocking anyone’s progress by walking. It’s like switching lanes while driving; make sure the person behind you isn’t going to rear-end you if you move over and/or stop suddenly. Again, if you are doing a run/walk thing, there shouldn’t be much chaos around the water station. If you are worried about it, and think you’ll be out there long enough to need some water, you can always just carry a bottle with you. Also, if you wear headphones, keep the volume low (or keep one earbud out) so that you can hear other runners. In my opinion, especially in a first race, it’s best not to use them at all. You don’t need the extra distraction.

At the finish line. Pretty much already covered above. If they are using a chip system, you might have to stop and give back the chip. Most use disposable chips now, though, which is the simplest of all. You just cross the finish line, do a cartwheel (if you want) and go get some post race bagels and bananas. Follow the instructions from the volunteers at the finish and all will go smoothly. Usually you can find out what scoring system they are using before you even start the race. In any case, just don’t hang around right at the finish line so there is room for others to cross the line.

That was kind of long, but in summary (1) get there early, (2) pin number to the front and, if used, make sure you have the timing chip, (3) line up in the right spot, (4) pay attention and don’t stop suddenly or cut off other runners, and (5) follow the instructions at the finish line. Also, be sure to thank the volunteers. Pretty simple, really.

Have a great race!

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