A Bad Metaphor

Nov 24, 2016
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Most people reading this have probably heard the metaphor comparing something to a marathon as opposed to a sprint: your education is a marathon, not a sprint; your career is a marathon, not a sprint; investing is a marathon, not a sprint. At first, the meaning seems obvious. A marathon is 42,195m (26.2 miles) and sprints are 400m or less. You don't have to be good at math to see that the marathon is more than 100 times longer. The marquis sprinting distance is 100m and is used to crown the “world's fastest” man and woman. Both cover the distance in less than 11 seconds. Both marathon world records are over 2 hours. The Disney Marathon requires you maintain a pace of 16 minutes per mile which will get you to the finish line in a few seconds less than 7 hours. A marathon is much longer than a sprint. I get it. Or I thought I did until I finished my first marathon.

When I started training for my first 5k, I did a “couch to 5k” program. I ran several days a week running longer and longer intervals until I could run 30 minutes wihout stopping (the approximate time it takes to finish a 5k). To be ready to train for a marathon, I needed to be able to run 8-10 miles wihot stoppimg. About 6 months after that first 5k race, I ran a 15k and started training for my first marathon. My training plan lasted 16 weeks running 4 days a week and peaked at 40 weekly miles and a long run of 20 miles. The long runs took 3-4 hours (or longer). Then I ran for 4 hours and 27 minutes and had over 4,000 people finish ahead of me and many more behind me.

Between my first and second marathon, I ran four 5ks, two 15ks, and three half marathons over more than 2.5 years. I lost 15-20 pounds off of my already slight frame. My goal was to finish faster and run the full distance without stopping (I walked through the water stops during my first marathon). I added a 5th day of running to a 18 week training plan and peaked at 50 miles a week with a long run of 20 miles. This was on top of years of gradually improving fitness.

So if it isn't obvious yet, a bigger difference between a sprint and a marathon, bigger than the difference in distance, is the difference in preparation required. Most people can run 100m. Most of those who can't are able to walk 100m. However, most major marathons include hundreds of people who enter and prepare only to fail to finish. This still isn't the biggest difference.

I don't know when it specifically occurred to me. Maybe I was on a run and saw someone pushing their belongings in a shopping cart. Maybe I had stopped at my local drug store to buy a Gatorade from someone working a second job. Eventually it occurred to me that not everyone can train for a marathon. You need time, support, health, and at least a little disposable income. If any one of these things is missing, you are going to have a hard time. Start adding them up and it quickly becomes impossible. Running a marathon requires privilege.

When I trained for my first 5k, I wore workout clothes I already owned and wore shoes I bought because they were a bargain, but I did most of my running on a treadmill in a gym. By the time I ran my second marathon, I had gone through more pairs of shoes than I could count and most set me back more than $100. I had enough of my favorite running shorts and sweat wicking shirts to run 5 days a week without having to do laundry in between. I usually had 2 pairs of shoes so one could be nice and dry while the sweat and occasional rain evaporated from the others. I had a wife and extended family to help watch the kids. I had a job that gave me the flexibility to have time to run. I had the required privilege.

So when someone tells you something is a marathon and not a sprint, not only does it take time but it probably also takes preparation. And if it takes both, you must have the privilege to even have the opportunity to undertake something that requires time and preparation. So when someone uses this metaphor, be thankful for the marathons your life gives you the opportunity to run.