Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Survey results (of why we run marathons)

I started a survey two weeks ago to attempt to find out why we run marathons - many thanks to all who responded!  A summary of the results are below.  If you have not yet contributed your thoughts and would like to, just scroll down (4 questions, totally anonymous, take you 60 seconds).

Summary of results so far:

First the demographics
  • 48% of the respondents have run 4 or more marathons, 15% are thinking about running their first, 15% have previously only run one marathon, and the remaining 12% have run between 2 & 3 marathons.
  • 33% are in the 40-49 year old range,  25% in the 30-39 age group,   19% are 50-59,   10% are over 60 years old, and the remaining 13% are under 30.
  • 62% male, 38% female gender split

At a very top level, it seems that we run marathons for a sense of accomplishment; it is a challenge, and we want to see if we can do it. It is a difficult enough of a challenge to not be taken casually, thus leading the sense of accomplishment upon its completion and for some people, the need to do it again.

To paraphrase some of the general themes that I’ve received:  “I want to see if I do it.  I gave birth to a child, can I run a marathon? I’m the only one in my office that will run 26.2 miles. I ran one marathon, can I do better in another one? If I run a marathon (or more than one) I will impress my friends”… and so on in that vein.  

The “Can I do it?” trend was typical for first timers or it was a “bucket list” thing: “several people in my social circle have done it, therefore I need to do it too”.  But so too was “I did it, I survived, I’ll never do it again”.

There was also a secondary thread that was goal oriented (similar to “accomplishment”, yet different); by scheduling to run a marathon, the goal was to train and exercise accordingly with the net goal of staying fit.  In other words, the marathon itself was the reward, the party, for all of the training. By having the implied obligation to run the event, it became compulsory to train for it, and therefore lead a reasonably healthy lifestyle.  This may be what leads runners to participate in multiple marathons.

 Some respondents are naturally competitive (and obviously naturally athletic) and their reason for running a marathon is continuous improvement. This group just loves running, is good and accomplished at distance running, and in general loves the atmosphere of a marathon. One respondent wrote to me about the mystery of the event, i.e. there is no telling what is going to happen between the starting line and the finish line (and it’s true – 26.2 miles is a long enough of a distance that anything can happen, be it weather, event organization, personal fitness or injury, and so on).

Another thought that seemed to be streaming in was that everyone enjoyed the buzz and activity surrounding a marathon.  Runners all seem to like the excitement before the start of the race, the support during the event, and of course, the finish line events.  In large marathons there is a carnival atmosphere that just amps up the buzz and excitement.  Obviously, many smaller marathons have little, if any buzz, and is targeted to the serious and hard core athletes.

One response that struck home with me (because we are in the same age group and apparently share the same thought) discussed the desire to run because people that he’s known are now dead or very unhealthy due to life style choices and his goal was simply to live a healthy life right up to the day that he keels over during a run. (I know that sounds morbid, but I agree – I’d rather drop on a trail or a road during a run than in a nursing home….)

But the striking result of this survey was the number of repeat marathoners. 60% of the respondents have run two or more marathons (48% have run 4 or more!!).  This flies in the face of the fact that running a marathon is very hard and sucks so much out of your body, plus it demands so much attention to training.  Obviously, there are exceptions for those individuals who are naturally athletic and have the right genes. 

30 years ago the average finish time was 3 hrs 30 minutes. Today it is at least 60 minutes longer, if not a bit more.  Any runner that is out there hoofing it along for over 4 hours (and I am one of those) is in danger of doing damage to their body – there is so much that can go wrong.  The prevailing wisdom is that after 3 hours of running we are starting to significantly break our body down.  I suspect that those runners that are repeat marathoners are running sub 3:30 events (that would have been a good question to add to the survey).

But my overall conclusion is that one of the key reasons that so many people are drawn to running a marathon is because it is hard, but it is doable, and when you succeed and cross that finish line, there is a tremendous feeling of self accomplishment.  And of course that leads to the wanting to run another one…

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