Column: The mystery behind why people run marathons

• Originally published in the Kane County Chronicle on Oct. 14, 2011

On Sunday, I watched my wife run in the Chicago Marathon.

A few weeks ago, the Fox Valley Marathon had people trekking through St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia for the second year in a row.

And according to Running USA’s annual marathon report, there were 507,000 finishers in the U.S. in 2010 compared with 353,000 in 2000; 224,000 in 1990; and just 25,000 in 1976. In about 35 years, the sport has grown from the size of Geneva to the size of New Orleans. It’s astounding.

What I don’t understand – what I can’t understand – is why.

A marathon is 26.2 miles long – a ridiculous distance if you pause to really think about it. That’s the equivalent of running from St. Charles to Arlington Heights as the crow flies and then – upon reaching Arlington Heights – being told you need to run six additional miles. That’s insane.

I’ve watched my wife run in five Chicago Marathons as well as a few other marathons. Not once have I felt the urge to join in the fun. Just biking after her during training runs is enough to make me yearn for the comforts of a couch and a TV remote. But I’m obviously being left behind here as thousands of additional souls decide to run a marathon every year.

So, wanting to get some insight into this phenomenon, I called the co-organizers of the Fox Valley Marathon, Dave Sheble and Craig Bixler.

Sheble and I in particular have something in common. For years, he watched his wife run while he stood on the sidelines just like me.

“My wife did them for years,” Sheble said, “and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind; there’s no way.’ ”

Sheble ultimately decided to get on the course himself, though, running his first marathon in 2004 in Chicago. When he set out to do it, he planned on being part of the fabled “one and done” club.

“Here we are seven years later, though, and my how things have changed,” he said. Sheble has run a number of marathons along with helping others achieve their marathon goals through his involvement with the Fox Valley Marathon.

But, why? I still don’t understand why.

“Some people have described it as ‘the ultimate challenge,’ ” Sheble said. “You just have to have the commitment. There is a reason they call this an endurance sport. You have to endure the race. … It’s controllable. In today’s environment, how many things are really controllable? But running is.”

Bixler, the other co-organizer of the Fox Valley Marathon, agreed with this idea.

“Times are tough and people need to feel good about themselves,” Bixler said. “They’re having life-changing events, and they need to get a handle of themselves and their lives and have something to feel good about. … It doesn’t matter whether you run it in two and a half hours or six and a half hours, you still did it.”

Bixler, who has been running marathons since his first one while in college in 1980, still remembers finishing his first marathon.

“It was an internal challenge,” he said. “ ‘Hey, can I go out there and do this?’ Whenever you set your mind out to do something and you accomplish it, you always feel great.

Setting a tough goal. Accomplishing it. Being in control of that accomplishment. What can beat that? So few things are in our control. The economy is not in our control. Our health is only so much in our control. But when out on a marathon course, barring injury, you’re in control. You decide whether to stop and give up or to finish the race, to finish the seemingly impossible 26.2 miles.

“The hardest thing is to make the commitment to do it,” Sheble said. “The miracle is not that I finished; it’s that I had the courage to start.”

Both Sheble and Bixler said just about anybody could do a marathon. You don’t need to be an athlete. You don’t need to be in the prime of your life. You just need to have the commitment. You just need to have the desire to control this one thing in your life.

I’ve never seen myself running a marathon. In all honesty, I still can’t. I remember running a 5K and thinking to myself during the race, “This is the worst thing in the world. I paid to do this? Am I insane?” A marathon is eight 5Ks run consecutively and then a little more.

But then again, I also remember finishing the 5K. That sense of accomplishment at having finished something I set out to do. Outkicking the 9-year-old girl down the stretch so I didn’t lose all my pride. And finishing a marathon, well, I suppose I would have to multiply that feeling by eight.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s a goal worth striving for.

Joe Grace is a former editor of the Kane County Chronicle who will occasionally drop in. You can write to him at joewriter81@gmail.com and follow his writings at http://www.joegrace.blogspot.com.

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