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With more races, training programs, and support available, running a marathon has never been more doable. Here’s how, where, and why to run your first — or next — 26.2 miles.

I’ve run thousands of miles over the years, mostly in small chunks of four or six at a time, but I’ve also done more than 30 on a few occasions. I’ve run on country roads, in the woods, in the jungle, on beaches, and on asphalt in cities around the world. But without a doubt, the best thousand feet I’ve ever run are the last thousand feet of a marathon.

It’s easy to overlook the little “point two” that gets tacked on to the big marathon number, 26. But it is that last fifth of a mile that makes it all worthwhile, not just the 26 before it. Inevitably, the crowds are at their thickest, the cheering is at its loudest, and the smiles are at their broadest. It is here that after months of preparation, you can finally see the finish line. The closing miles of a marathon are the toughest, but in those final thousand feet it is impossible not to get a second (or third or fourth) wind. You know that when you cross the line you get the photo, the medal, the free goodies, and the satisfaction. But best of all, you finally get to stop running.

When I ran my first marathon in Honolulu four years ago, I may have been a bit late to the party, but I officially became part of a booming global trend. At the inaugural New York Marathon in 1970, just 127 runners showed up. Last year more than 90,000 applied for fewer than half as many spots. Marathoning has exploded in popularity, with both the number of races and the number of racers — many of them first-timers — increasing every year.

Walt Disney World Marathon
Courtesy Walt Disney World Marathon
There were two major booms in the past 30 years. The first was when the number of U.S. finishers leapt nearly fivefold in just four years, from 25,000 in 1976 to 143,000 in 1980. The current growth wave began in 1995 (293,000 finishers), and 2010 should see nearly half a million finishers — just in the U.S. The top four races now have more finishers than the entire nation did 30 years ago.

This is great news for newcomers, because as marathons have gained popularity, they have become more diverse. Once the province of elite athletes, finishers now span all ages and fitness levels. Female finishers were a rarity in 1980, but today they comprise almost half the field. And the average age of marathoners has crept up to 38. Even more encouraging for “average” runners are skyrocketing finishing times, slowing by almost an hour from a median of 3:32 (men) in 1980 to nearly 4:16 today.Why the popularity? Says Amby Burfoot, editor-at-large of Runner’s World magazine, “The more people who run marathons, the more people decide to try it themselves. Decades ago, most regular folks thought the marathon was an impossible Olympian event. Now, as they see friends and coworkers complete marathons, these same people see that it’s actually very doable.” It was certainly doable for Burfoot, who won the 1968 Boston race.

Certainly there are many reasons for the surge, including the population’s increased interest in fitness and exercise. Another is the celebrity inspiration. While I was running the 2009 Chicago Marathon, I saw a sign that read, “If Oprah did it, so can you!” referring to the talk show host’s realized goal of finishing a marathon before age 40, which she did at the 1994 Marine Corps race in Washington, D.C. Others have found inspiration in amateur runners such as George W. Bush (Houston, of course), P. Diddy (New York), and seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong (New York).

Another explanation for the upward trend is also the most uplifting: charity. Years ago, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society launched Team in Training, which helps fund-raisers finish a marathon by offering coaching, nutritional advice, and organized group-training runs. Team in Training now helps about 40,000 people each year train for marathons, many of whom will be running for the first time, and it has inspired several similar groups.

“If you look at the rapid growth in the sport, a very big driver is these charitable groups,” explains Justin Nyberg, the “bodywork” (fitness) editor for Outside magazine. “They contribute a huge service. They give your goal a larger meaning, and you join a like-minded community with coaching expertise. As long as you are willing to raise money, they make it as easy as running 26 miles can be. Team in Training was the first, but no matter what your cause, there is probably a training group for you.”