When talking with non-runners about my upcoming races one of my favourite questions is “how far is this marathon”? Real answer: 42.2K (26.2 miles). Tempting answer: 12.195K too far on a bad day. 0.195K (0.2 miles) too far on a good day. Those last 195 metres (0.2 miles) are a killer. After a marathon I’m often greeted with an “is this the longest marathon you’ve ever run’? Real answer: All marathons are the same length. Tempting answer: it sure felt like it. I appreciate that my non-running friends are showing, or feigning, interest in my time-consuming hobby. I never grow tired of describing, in excruciating detail, every single kilometre of the race.
I also smile when people talk about running a 5K marathon. To them, I’m sure, it was a marathon effort. Once, after a 10K race, a man very sweetly proposed to his girlfriend on the finish line. That night the couple made the local evening news. In talking about the 10K she gushed the word marathon at least four times in the 20 second clip: I never thought I could run a marathon, running this marathon is a dream come true, I’ve always admired marathoners, and I can think of no better way to celebrate my marathon victory than by saying yes to the man of my dreams. I’m paraphrasing, my memory isn’t that good. I wonder if and when she realized that she ran not quite a quarter of a marathon. I fear the news would devastate her.
The average person on the street knows that a marathon is a long distance, even if they do not know that all marathons are one precisely measured length. And why would they know? Or care? I don’t know how to keep score in badminton, although I have a vague notion that score-keeping is involved. That’s enough to satisfy my thirst for badminton-related knowledge. Unless you run (or support a runner), there has probably never been a need in your life to check the length. It’s a long run, everyone knows that much. The length wasn’t even fixed until the spell-binding London Olympic Marathon in 1908, when the selected 42.195K distance (chosen so that the royal family could view the finish from their box seats) influenced the IAAF to officially set the distance in 1921. Before 1921 the distance bounced around 40K. So if someone in the century age range asks you “how far is this marathon” they are asking a historically informed question.
Confusing the issue, races offer mini-marathons, cable networks offer mind-numbing and annoyingly addictive rerun-marathons, and the term has been usurped by anyone looking to describe any time-consuming and/or arduous task. The Marathon, always with a capital M to show respect, is a word revered by runners but overused by everyone else. I recently read about a marathon political campaign. A marathon performace. A marathon delivery. I google alert the word marathon. You’d be surprised at what I’m sent.
In answer to the “how far” questions, once upon a time I responded with an “around 42K”, but quickly found that cold hard numbers don’t mean much to many folks. People just aren’t tuned into kilometres. An offhanded “from here to location 42 kilometres away” is much more effective. You can always recognize the moment that they get it by the bugging of the eyes when the context helps them understand the incredulous length. So how far is this marathon? Far enough. For now.