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In defense of running marathons

That's me on the left, running the Boston Marathon in 2010. Look how happy I am!
Eleanor Barkhorn

"Have we devised any greater waste of time and energy than the running of the marathon?" Slate asks today. Daniel Engber argues that the half-million Americans who run marathons every year would be better served doing something else: studying Arabic, for example, or volunteering at a soup kitchen. At the end of the piece, he urges readers to join his anti-marathon movement and commit to doing "something — anything!" other than training for and running a 26.2-mile race.

Though he protests otherwise, Engber's essay is a clear example of rage trolling, and it rests on a puzzling premise: that marathon running is a uniquely unworthy goal, and that training for one, as compared with any other hobby, is an especially useless endeavor.

He's wrong. I’ve trained for and run in three marathons, and none of them was a waste of time. Marathons have given me structure, friendship, a sense of accomplishment, and, most importantly, pure joy.

My first marathon was the New Jersey Marathon. I started training midway through my sophomore year of college as a sort of quest for redemption after a series of ego-bruising events.

Two years earlier, I’d been at the top of my high school class and an enthusiastic if middling member of several sports teams. But college delivered one blow after another: I was cut from the crew team and bounced from the social club I’d tried to join. My grades were, for the first time in my life, mediocre. I dated a guy who was not very nice to me for six months.

Training for a marathon offered a chance to be good at something again, to set a goal and achieve it. I got a training buddy, and we went on long runs together and talked about books and life and friends. Our only goal was to finish, but we ended up finishing in under four hours — far faster than we'd expected. Not bad for some teenage crew team rejects.

My second marathon was the New York City Marathon, which I trained for while I was living in Leland, Mississippi, and working as a reporter at the local paper. I did my long runs with a group of 30-something men who were training for the Memphis Marathon. They got a kick out of me, this chipper, chatty New Yorker in their midst. And I loved getting to know some white Southern men — a group I’d spent most of my life unkindly stereotyping. (And wouldn't you know it, several years later I ended up marrying a white Southern man, though not one of my Mississippi marathon friends.)

My New York City Marathon race day experience points to another thing Engber's piece gets wrong about actually running in a race. He compares marathon running to mountain climbing: "At least Everest has a view!" But he has obviously never run across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge or the 59th Street Bridge on a glorious November day. The opportunity to run all over my home city, cheered on by friends and strangers and high school band members, is one I’ll cherish forever.

My third and final marathon was Boston. After my surprisingly good showing at the New Jersey Marathon, I’d made qualifying for Boston a goal, and my time in the New York City Marathon just barely got me in.

By the time I was training for Boston, I was living in Washington, DC, working as an editor at a magazine. It was the first marathon I trained for alone, but that was what I needed at the time: I was living with roommates, and I relished the solo, contemplative time that running gave me. The training was also a much-needed extracurricular activity for me — my job was exciting and demanding, and if I hadn’t had running it would have been tempting to let work take over my life.

Race day was exhilarating; I told a friend right afterward that it felt like "getting a kiss on the forehead from God." (The runner's high is real, my friends.) The people of Boston love marathon day, and they were out in droves. Wellesley College students scream so loudly in support of the runners that you can hear them a mile away. The energy was so great that when I reached the course's infamous Heartbreak Hill 20 miles in, I actually picked up my pace.

After running a personal record time in Boston six years ago, I "retired" from marathons. The Slate article rightly points out that running does inflict wear and tear on the body, and I want to be active well into old age. Like a lot of ex-marathoners, I didn’t want my 80-year-old self to be hobbling around on prosthetic knees because of my youthful running.

But I’ve continued to pursue goal-oriented fitness endeavors: I did a long-distance relay race called a Ragnar a few years ago; I’ve run a half-marathon; my current obsession is Flywheel, a spinning class where you get a score that allows you to compete with others and yourself. (This is another form of exercise that Slate thinks is worthless, by the way.)

It's difficult to comprehend why any of this could be considered a waste of time, and I cannot imagine my life without it. Marathons have helped me stay in shape, given my life structure, and made me feel good at something in seasons where my job or school or relationships weren’t going well. Oh, yeah — and they're fun. That alone is more than enough to make them worth my time.


Watch: Why do people run the marathon? I ran one to find out.