Boston Marathon
Darren McCollester  /  Newsmakers file
Runners start up Heartbreak Hill during the Boston Marathon, the oldest in the nation.
By contributor
updated 8/17/2004 7:24:49 PM ET 2004-08-17T23:24:49

A few years ago, Lisa Schwarte was driving through San Diego on a Sunday morning when she encountered a seemingly endless stream of runners participating in a local marathon. While some appeared incredibly fit, others “didn’t look at all like a typical runner,” she recalls. “Suddenly, I realized that completing a marathon was an obtainable goal and I began thinking about running one myself.”

Schwarte, who had run to lose weight during high school and college, decided to sign up for the race and begin training with her brother. Less than a year later, in June 2000, she crossed the finish line of San Diego's Suzuki Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in four hours and 20 minutes.

“I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment and empowerment,” the 43-year-old attorney explains. "I had achieved one of my life goals.”

Since then, she has completed three additional marathons and plans to keep running the 26.2-mile races for years to come.

These days, Schwarte has plenty of company. Over the last decade, participation in marathons and triathlons, both popular Olympic events, has grown by leaps and bounds among recreational athletes.

According to USA Track and Field, about 236,000 runners crossed the finish line at U.S. marathons in 1990. Today, the figure stands well above 400,000. Meanwhile, participation in triathlons, which involve swimming, cycling and running, is swelling by 50 percent annually. USA Triathlon estimates between 100,000 and 150,000 individuals race in its nearly 1,100 sanctioned triathlons each year. The number of events has nearly doubled since 1998.

At a time when obesity and lack of exercise are a national epidemic, some individuals are pounding the pavement and splashing through the surf with relentless fervor.

“The marathon is tremendously alluring to people,” observes Mary Wittenberg, chief operating officer for the New York Road Runners, which manages the ING New York Marathon. “Most people know that climbing Mt. Everest or playing in the Super Bowl is out of the question, but completing a marathon is possible.”

'A 26-mile party'
Ryan Lamppa, a researcher at the USA Track and Field Road Running Information Center in Santa Barbara, Calif., says that several factors have contributed to the spike in popularity.

For starters, the development of sanctioned training programs has made it easier for newcomers to prepare adequately for a race. National and local television coverage of top events -- such as the Boston Marathon and Hawaii Ironman Triathlon -- has provided greater exposure. And finally, race directors have transformed bare-bones races into weekend extravaganzas, complete with fitness expos, goodie bags, carbo-load dinners, bands and entertainment along routes, medals and post-race parties.

Kelly Martin  /  Liaison file
Alexandra Paul and Ian Murray get ready to start the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in Malibu, Calif., on September 17, 2000, a day after their wedding. Both finished the race, which included a 1/2-mile swim, 18-mile bike ride and a 4-mile run. The number of triathlons across the nation has nearly doubled since 1998.

In Orlando, marathoners pass through all four Disney theme parks in Orlando -- Disney World, Epcot Center, MGM and Animal World -- and view everything from elephants to Cinderella’s castle along the way.

In San Diego and Phoenix, rock 'n' roll themed marathons offer music along the entire route along with a huge post-race bash. "It’s a 26-mile party,” says Tim Murphy, president of Elite Racing Inc., a San Diego company that puts on both races. Last year, the inaugural Arizona event attracted 29,200 participants, making it the largest first-time marathon in history.

At the same time, race planners have made these events more accessible to the average athlete. Only a few years ago, many marathons and triathlons imposed strict cut-off times; most now accommodate stragglers and walkers for several hours -- sometimes the entire day.

“There’s no longer a strong emphasis on finishing time," Lamppa says. "You have hard-core athletes still competing for personal bests but also a lot of people who only want to cross the finish line and don’t care about the clock.”

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The numbers back him up. Since 1980, the average time for males to finish a marathon has increased from 3:32 to 4:20, according to USA Track and Field.

Pain and gain
To be sure, participants find these sports increasingly alluring. Patricia O’Byrne, a 56-year-old real estate agent in Burbank, Calif., began competing in sprint triathlons in 2003, after watching her adult son finish a race. She has since completed four.

“It’s fun, it’s satisfying and there’s incredible camaraderie," she says. "It’s something completely for me.”

Schwarte says that running marathons has become an entrenched part of her lifestyle. Her family, including a husband and 5-year-old son, support the arduous training required to run a marathon -- including nearly three-hour, 20-mile-plus runs prior to a race.

Ultimately, she says, “it’s a reaffirmation of your ability to maintain yourself, stay physically fit and gain a psychological edge that comes with pushing yourself beyond what you believed possible.”

Of course, the messenger who first traversed the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens in 4 B.C. to bring news of an Athenian victory over the Persians (he subsequently collapsed and died) could never have imagined how his feat would influence future generations.

“The numbers continue to grow," says Elite Racing's Murphy. "Running a marathon is an opportunity for the ordinary person to accomplish something truly extraordinary.”

Samuel Greengard is a freelance writer and marathon runner based in Burbank, Calif. His articles have appeared in Wired, Discover, Home and the Los Angeles Times.

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