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Is Running a Marathon Grueling

All 26.2 miles can't be that hard, can they?

by Hal Higdon

Grueling. I hate the word!

At least as grueling is used in connection with marathons. As in a story by Associated Press reporter Rob Gloster the day after the ING New York City Marathon. "(Paul) Tergat and (Hendrick) Ramaala were side by side all morning," Gloster wrote, "trading the lead for 26.2 grueling miles."

Grueling miles? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines grueling as "requiring extreme effort: exhausting." Does it require extreme effort to run 26.2 miles? For most of us, yes. Is running a marathon exhausting? Certainly so.

But we're talking about two highly trained athletes here, one of them (Tergat) the world record holder, the other (Ramaala) fit enough to throw in a 4:22 mile at Mile 14. Running that fast certainly required extreme effort on Ramaala's part, but it certainly didn't exhaust him. He kept going for 12 more miles and narrowly lost the race to Tergat only in the last few strides.

A stroll in the park

Yet Gloster and other reporters would have us believe that each of the 26.2 miles run by Tergat, Ramaala and the 37,514 other competitors who started New York was grueling. I'm going to suggest that a few of the miles--maybe most of the last half dozen--run by New York City marathoners might deserve being called "grueling," but many other miles were simply a stroll in the park.

And most mid-pack runners apparently agree. In a survey conducted on my InterActive Forums, half of those responding admitted that the last six miles were grueling; a third claimed only that "several" miles deserved that term. Nobody felt all 26.2 miles were grueling.

"The first ten are a cake walk," explains Perry Dau, 43, a store owner and 2:52 marathoner from Schofield, Wisconsin. "The next ten are tough. The last six become more and more difficult with maybe only the last four truly grueling."

Checking my computer thesaurus, here are several other words offered as substitutes for grueling: Demanding, taxing, hard, punishing, difficult, tough, arduous, backbreaking, rough, harsh, severe. The antonym offered by my computer for grueling is "easy."

Marathons can be easy

Depending on how you run them, marathons indeed can be easy. Kevin Robinson, 40, a business consultant from Omaha, Nebraska, commented: "My last marathon in Chicago was run on a beautiful day on a flat course, and I was well trained. I finished under 4 hours, and not a step of that race was anywhere near grueling."

Having led pacing teams at marathons on several occasions, I can attest that for well-trained runners, more miles in a marathon qualify as easy than grueling. Running at a 4-hour pace or slower, they laugh, they chatter, they high-five spectators on the sidewalks. They pull out digital cameras and snap pictures of each other.

After halfway, even the best-trained runners start to hurt. Digital cameras are forgotten. The next few miles might be described as demanding, maybe taxing. The miles after that hard, punishing. Past 20 miles almost everyone starts to struggle. Now we are up to backbreaking, rough and harsh on the Grueling Scale. But in the last mile, the digital cameras come back out. Those final 385 yards? They can be severe; but they also can be spirit-lifting. Anybody who has stood beside the finish line of a marathon understands that.

Ah well, reporters who may not have run marathons themselves don't always know what it feels like to run 26.2 miles. Nevertheless, "grueling" seems an inaccurate adjective for those miles, at least most of them. The Associated Press should tell its reporters to eliminate that word from their vocabulary.

Hal Higdon, a Contributing Editor for Runner's World, has run 111 marathons, near 3,000 total miles, not all of them grueling.

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