• Image about Athens
Adam Voorhes

Marathon running — once a sport only for elite athletes — now courts half a million participants each year. Our writer attempts to understand the whys and hows of the long-distance phenomenon as he prepares for his first 26.2-mile race.

One quick warning before we set off here: This is an article about running a marathon. Your first marathon. Possibly your only marathon. Now, why are you still reading? Maybe you haven’t yet notched this little 26.2-mile dash on your list of crowning personal achievements and it’s been eating away at you.
  • Image about Athens
Runners pass through Harlem near the 22-mile mark in the ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 7, 2010.
Richard Levine/Alamy

Or maybe your situation is more like mine: It’s not really eating away at you at all. You could quite contentedly live the remainder of your life without running a marathon, and your knees and iliotibial band will thank you for it. Nonetheless, the word just keeps popping up in your face, tugging slightly at your shoelaces: marathon. There it is again.

For me, it all started several months ago when a friend said out of the blue during a relaxed Saturday-morning run, “The next marathon I do, you’re doing it with me.”

A fateful seed was planted that day. A powerful one, it turns out, with fabled roots that date back more than 2,500 years to a Greek herald named Pheidippides who, legend has it, raced 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens, Greece, in 490 B.C. to announce victory over Persia before keeling over on the spot. The marathon would enter the modern world in 1896 during the inaugural Olympics in Athens, remaining in elite athletic circles for decades before germinating with the public. Today, around 1,200 marathon races are held annually around the world (nearly one-third of them in the U.S.), with even more sprouting up to a growing demand of unsuspecting candidates — like me.

Marathon. Once that little seed was planted — hmm, I could do a marathon — I found it kept cropping up like one of those off-the-radar words (langouste, anyone?) that suddenly appears on every billboard, headline and takeout menu. Frankly, ?marathon seemed like a pretty good word for me to ignore. I’m 41. I’m busy and tired as it is. In an active week, I might run 12 to 15 miles, which is plenty. In a lazier one, I can still rely on a rigorous exercise regimen known as Two Kids Who Want to Be Carried and Chased Virtually Everywhere. Finally, I kind of enjoy being able to relate to that David Letterman gag about suffering a pulled hamstring during the New York City Marathon: “An hour into the race, I jumped off the couch.”