26.2 Miles

From Athens to Leadville

by Maddie Pillari; illustration by Kelsey Skordal

The first person to ever run a marathon died. After Pheidippides completed his famous 26.2 mile journey from Marathon to Athens to report the defeat of the Persian Army, he gasped out his famous last words: “Rejoice, we conquer!” Death is the least likely on the long and painful list of potential injuries that long-distance runners face. Most of these injuries don’t go away on their own, and require expensive physical therapy or surgery—and that’s only for immediate treatment. And yet, we live in a society where exercise is thrust upon us as the answer to all of our physical and mental health problems. 

Marathon running, despite its flagrant mileage, continues to be an acclaimed accomplishment, hailed as the ultimate fitness achievement. Far more often the response is: “You ran a marathon? Congratulations!” Rather than: “How do your knees feel? How many toenails do you have left (if any)?” or “I hope that your PT isn’t too expensive!”

Patellofemoral pain syndrome, or “runner’s knee,” is the most common running injury. The irritation of the cartilage behind the kneecap due to overuse is the most popular of the plethora of painful side effects of running. If patelofemoral pain syndrome isn’t for you, maybe illiobial band friction syndrome, tibial stress syndrome, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis and meniscal injuries sound more appealing. 

Without the right amount of nutrition, rest and technical attention, the risks of marathon running perhaps outweigh the benefits. With mile after mile of pushing your body to the limit, the musculoskeletal costs adds up. Despite this, Running USA declared 2014 a record-breaking year, with 541,000 marathon finishers and more than 1,100 races. So why do over half a million people indulge in this painful, exhausting and arguably dangerous race? 

If 26.2 miles seems too easy or trivial a distance, “ultramarathons” are an option. And if you are looking for one close to Colorado College, the infamous Leadville Trail 100 is one of the most popular. Affectionately known as the “The Race Across the Sky,” this ultramarathon features a total of 15,600 vertical feet for runners to climb, traverse and descend on trails and dirt roads through the Rocky Mountains. Elevations for the race range between 9,200-12,620 feet, and runners are given a 30-hour time limit to complete the 100 miles. Each year, less than half of participants complete the 100 miles in time. Josh Colley, Leadville resident and race director since 2010, reported to the online blog Fittish that the race reached the 700-person cap in 2013 in 30 hours. Due to similar high demand to participate in 2014, the 2015 race moved to a lottery registration system allowing around 800 starters. Of the 800, only 361 runners crossed (or crawled across) the finish line. An ultramarathon is defined as anything longer than a standard 26.2 miles, and taking into account the extreme elevation, terrain and unfathomable distance, the Leadville 100 is “ultra” and a bit more.

Marathons begin to seem tame in comparison to racing 100 miles through the Rockies. Mileage is relative, right? What is 26 when you can do 100? And then after you do 100, you might as well sign up for the Marathon des Sables, which consists of a casual 156 miles across the burning Sahara. A line, it seems, needs to be drawn. What can start out as a healthy habit of running a mile or two every morning could turn into four or five. Then you start signing up for 5ks, 10ks, half-marathons, marathons, Ironmans, ultramarathons. Soon, coordinating your running schedule means finding hours you have to set aside each day to maintain the level of fitness required to participate in these elite races. Waking up at 4 a.m. so you can get in 20 miles before work, flying to France to compete in the coveted Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, then to Leadville, then to the Sahara, then maybe hit up Antarctica for the Ice Ultramarathon. As time consuming and arguably physically damaging as any other addiction, running across deserts and mountains for days on end, contest after contest, you may begin to wonder where it all began and how to make it stop.  

Running is renowned for its health benefits. The activity is scientifically proven to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, improve bone density, lower the chance of diabetes mellitus and combat depression. Hop on the treadmill or hit the trail and your brain will chemically reward you with those hard-earned endorphins. But just like anything else, moderation seems to be key. The longer and more often you run, the more pressure you put on your muscles and bones. Toenails fall off and tendons ache, shin bones splinter and hamstrings snap. 26.2 miles of sneakers on pavement, not to mention 100 miles over god-knows-what terrain, might just be too much. Around 39-43 percent of marathon runners sustain an injury while training, 40 percent of them are knee injuries. Popular training plans recommend that runners be able to comfortably run 30-35 miles per week before even beginning to train for the marathon itself. Focusing on increasing your aerobic threshold, muscular endurance and fuel efficiency is incredibly important. But even the most careful planning and time spent stretching, eating, warming up or cooling down doesn’t guarantee a safe race. 

Other than getting fit or challenging your body and mind, many runners have a goal outside of personal health. Thousands of marathoners represent a cause or team and run to raise money for a particular charity or research fund. According to the Boston Athletic Association, the 2014 Boston Marathon reeled in $38.4 million for charity, nearly doubling the $20 million raised in the 2013 race. 

The marathon, from the very beginning, has been a test of mental strength. During Pheidippides’s fatal run to Athens, his mind and body were undoubtedly screaming at him to stop. He literally ran himself to death. Today, with strict physical and nutritional training, death is far less likely. Marathon runners prepare for the race, whereas Pheidippides did not. And to say you ran a marathon, and survived, is a respected accomplishment. This year, the Boston Marathon was on nearly every major news network and streamed live online. Millions of people watched over 30,000 runners from all over the world compete in the iconic race. 30,000 runners were just the right amount of crazy to train hard enough to participate. But after the Boston Marathon bombing terrorist attack in 2013, running in the Boston Marathon became about more than just bragging rights. It became 26.2 miles in the face of terrorism. The numbers pinned to the chests of the victims of the race represented a different kind of endurance. The hoards of fans, packed against the gates with motivational signs, water stations and cameras cheered the exhausted runners forward. “Boston Strong” wasn’t just something people said after the terrorist attack in 2013, it was something people did. 

Ethiopian runner Lelisa Desisa, who won this year’s Boston Marathon, was quoted by the Washington Post at the finish line, “I am happy to win, No. 1, and for Boston—Boston 2013!” He completed the race in 2 hours, 9 minutes and 17 seconds. But it wasn’t his first time winning. Desisa won the Boston marathon two years ago, and was unharmed in the attack that left three people dead and more than 250 injured. That year, Desisa donated his medal to the city of Boston. “The reason I want to give the medal back is I want people to know I feel the pain,” Desisa said at the ceremony. “The pain I have is with me, and that only encourages me, every time when I run.”

Every cliché trainer’s mantra, “no pain, no gain” seems trivial in the face of the agony of 26.2, or even 100 miles. But the slogan holds some truth. Without the bloody feet, screaming lungs, aching legs or time invested, the feeling Desisa describes, and feelings photographed at the finish line of 5ks to Saraha Desert crossings, is something runners fight for, even if the costs start to accumulate and compromise rationality.