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Is a slow marathon better than no marathon at all?

Filed in Running by Lisa on August 27, 2013 18 Comments


An article written several years ago has been making the rounds on social media recently. It basically says that slow marathoners shouldn’t be allowed to call themselves marathoners or even allowed to participate.

Purists believe that running a marathon should be just that — running the entire course at a relatively fast clip. They point out that a six-hour marathoner is simply participating in the event, not racing in it. Slow runners have disrespected the distance, they say, and have ruined the marathon’s mystique.

Certain runners believe that to get a medal for a marathon, you should earn it by running fast. But isn’t fast relative? One person quoted in the article mentioned above was talking about how wearing a marathon t-shirt doesn’t mean much any more. Ironically, the woman quoted putting down six-hour marathoners is a 4:05 marathoner. There are many runners who wouldn’t consider that fast either.

Things evolve and running is no exception. While running “purists” might miss the “good ol’ days” where medals were only given to winners and the average time for a marathon was under four hours, I appreciate today’s running culture where everyone is encouraged to participate and all runners are celebrated. More and more people aspire to accomplish big goals. The Biggest Loser even had a marathon at the end of several of its seasons, making it the ultimate physical challenge for people who had dramatically changed their lives.  For some people, accomplishing that goal is the end of it.  For others, that first big marathon step is the beginning of a life of running.  When I trained for my first marathon, I was not a runner.  It was all about that goal. I had no idea if I would be a four-hour marathoner or a six-hour marathoner. I ran it in just under five.  But the most important thing was not the time of that first marathon, but what training did for me. It changed me and turned me into a runner. That five-hour marathoner qualified for Boston three years later. Had the culture of marathoning been all about the speed, I never would have done it.

Individual races are free to establish cut-off times for finishing.  Many races have liberal cut-off times.  Races often establish these deadlines for financial reasons; it costs money to keep roads closed and have support for the straggling runners. The bottom line is that race cut-offs are a function of economics, not the “mystique” of the marathon. More and more people are signing up for marathons and races are trying to accommodate as many as they reasonably can.

So are these slow marathons hurting the sport?  In my opinion, it is just the opposite. Having someone run a six-hour marathon does not diminish another person’s three-hour race.  We all went out and put one foot in front of the other for 26.2 miles.  If someone walked that 26.2 miles, that does not lessen the distance.  Have you ever been out on the road for six hours?  It is not easy. I believe that any time a person gets off the couch, sets a goal and moves it is a good thing.

Do you think that slow marathoners have hurt the mystique of the marathon?


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About the Author ()

I am a mom, a runner and a coach. I discovered a passion for fitness and running in my early forties while trying to "find" myself after becoming a stay-at-home mom. Since 2008, I have run one ultra marathon, seven marathons, twenty half marathons, numerous trail races and various shorter races. I am certified as a running coach, in pre- and post-natal fitness, HIIT classes and am pursuing my certification as a personal trainer.

Comments (18)

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  1. Cat says:

    Thanks for the read. As someone who’s goal is to run a marathon, I honestly hope this is something the media is blowing out of proportion. Everyone I’ve met in running is about bringing the community together and not shaming each other about their lack of speed. I hope those “purists” are the outlier and just focus on improving their times and quit criticizing others who are making an effort.

    • Lisa says:

      I totally agree, Cat! I love how much the running community comes together to support each other. I believe that the “purists” are the outliers.

  2. Chris says:

    Who are these “purists” and what makes running fast so “pure”? Unless it’s an elite saying this, it means nothing…because someone will always be faster than you are.

    So these purists want their medals to mean something to other people? Meaning, they only run to get a medal to show others how awesome they are? That’s just dumb. I run for one person: me. When I get a medal, it’s something I look at to remind myself of the blood, sweat, and tears shed earning that medal…not so I can show other people how awesome I am.

    • Lisa says:

      I agree, Chris! Someone will always be faster and you should run for YOU. I hated running in high school because I never won. Once I started up in my 40’s I realize that it wasn’t about that. It is about pushing yourself to get out there and do something BIG.

  3. Heather says:

    I remember you said to me once something about how my SLOW half marathon time was maybe so much harder on my overweight body at the time than someone who ran it faster. Now I have no idea if there is any truth to it or science behind it but was always something I thought about when I was running and it was one of the things that got me through 5 half marathons which I still feel like was a huge accomplishment for me at the time. I now know a lot more about nutrition and exercise and running is not for me but kudos to anyone who decides they are going to run, walk or crawl a marathon it is not for the faint of heart.

  4. eric mueller says:

    Some people want to run in a marathon simply to participate and accomplish a goal. Why does it have to be a race for all? That is simply stupid.

    maybe this about that some people are just assholes and need an excuse to exercise it…

  5. Tina G says:

    What utter and complete nonsense. I am having to really hold back and not curse a blue streak upon hearing/reading that. I have had a few people say something to me about being slow. But they weren’t purists, They were assholes (as Eric Mueller so aptly put it!). I have come from struggling to complete a 5km run to recently finishing a half marathon. Am I fast? hell no. My last half I was on my way to crushing a new PB…and whammo…i got violently ill with a incredibly rude attack of gastro. I spent 10 minutes in the porta potty getting sick, drying my tears over a LOST personal best. And then straightened up, pulled up my big grl pants and finished the last 5 miles. Was it a good race? No. But i showed myself i could persevere. And next time I will have that time in my sights. Anyone who is not encouraging or positive about how AWESOME any level of running is is a jerk. And never ever worth shedding tears or worry about. Running to me is about community and supporting each other!!! I do not feel back about myself because I won’t be qualifying for Boston anytime soon. For me to race Boston, I have to “shave” an hour off my marathon time. That is not happening right now. But what is happening is that I am stronger, happier, and a better person for running! And thqt to me is better than nay bragging rights about how FAST I am. And honestly, in 20 years, who is gonna really give a shit that i ONCE ran a race in “blahblah”……no. Maybe some grandkids might be impressed that gran still runs. or walks. or stayed fit.

    • eric mueller says:

      well put! What you described sounds way harder and more of an accomplishment than what some elite runner did. Way to go!

      There is no slow…there’s just being out there that matters.

  6. Mick says:

    In a lot of respects, I have more admiration for the people who run/ walk a marathon in 5 or 6 hours than the faster people. They are out on the course longer, often in the elements. The longer it goes on, the more punishment they are inflicting on their bodies. I ran Comrades in South Africa earlier this year. 54 miles and hit was the hottest it had been in over 40 years. 12 hours to finish. Gun to gun. Out of 14,000 starters, only 10,500 finished within the cut-off. Of those, 7,000 finished in the last 90 minutes i.e. between 10: 30 – 12:00 hours. Those people probably walked more than they ran. But that is still a pretty impressive effort. Hats off to them!!

  7. zoeSocial says:

    That is a ridiculous question. If someone wants to take part in a healthy activity, we should be welcoming them into the community, not chastising them for not being “good enough”.

    I LOVE lining up at a race and seeing all different types of people and would not want that to change.

    However, on the topic of medals…I’d totally be fine with no medal or t-shirt if it brought down the fee of some races. Honestly, the cost of racing for a whole year can really add up! They should make additional items optional and make races MORE accessible by lowering the cost of registration.


  8. I completely agree – it isn’t about the time, it’s about the journey. I did my first marathon last fall finishing in 5:30. To many, that is considered a slow marathoner. Sure, I walked. But I didn’t walk because I hadn’t trained. I walked because, that day, it was the best I could do.

    As a 5:30 marathoner, I put in the same work. I ran the 18, 20 mile training runs. I did my speed work during the week. I logged 35-50 miles a week. I did the same amount of work, just slower.

    My favorite quote comes to mind: “a six minute mile is just as far as a 14 minute mile”

    Thanks for the great post!

  9. Brenda Ellen says:

    How fantastic that so many people feel passionate about such rubbish.

    I started running again in my early forties and as I age I get slower, I will never stop. People who do not run will never understand. Purists who say that are arrogant and like in all sport there are those who think they have a right to diminish the efforts of others.

    The hardest part of running a marathon is the training.
    The best part for me is arriving at the event, lining up with kindred souls. Shaking hands to the stranger next to me and feeling the anticipation and energy about to explode. Knowing that in the 42.2 km ahead of me are unknown until I cross the finish line and that I am about to test myself and enjoy every smile I see and climb over every wall I hit.. Fast or slow, we are all entitled to our own experiences as the pinnacle of the journey that got us there.

  10. Love the article and comments. In our races we actually discourage elite athletes to participate, unless they know what they are getting into. We don’t give out prize money and our cutoff times for our half marathons are 3.5-4 hours depending on the location.

    Its amazing, but weekly I get a request from an elite runner asking to run for free, some even ask me to pay their travel expenses. I just don’t get it.

  11. Eddie D says:

    Everyone runs a Marathon for different reasons and I think that its not fair for someone to judge how “slow” someone is. My goal when I run a Marathon is usually to beat my previous time, but there are many times I envy those people who can slow down and enjoy the course. It may sound ‘cliche’ but people pay good money to run these events and they should get as much enjoyment out of them as they want.

    I know plenty of runners, slow and fast, who give their all and do the best they can,sometimes its a 5:30 marathon, and sometimes its a 3:30. I don’t get these “elitists” who are not even “elite” and bring down other runners, and the REAL “elites” who run 2:30 and below embrace ALL runners!

  12. Rleduc says:

    I am not a marathoner – too fragile – so I try to run shorter distances as fast as I can. I will still never win, although I have placed in my age group in small local races.

    I agree with the above author who said they could do without the medals. I keep my race bin as a memento, write the time on the back and put it on a key ring. Takes up less space. I don’t need a bit of metal or plastic to remind me of what I’ve done. I would trade all that crap for cheaper races that more people could afford.

    I need a wee-measured, challenging and scenic course, water, bananas and porta potties, and a watch. I’ll supply the watch. Actually, in European races, you’re supposed to bring your own food as well.

    The sport does lose something of it is ONLY about participation just as it loses something if it is ONLY about the fastest.

  13. Sharon Cleary says:

    Where does it say that the marathon is a ‘race’? There are those who treat it as such, but others simply take part just because they can, they have trained for it and who are these so called ‘purists’ to say that the slower runner should not be allowed to take part………rubbish

  14. Chuck Hargrove says:

    I do not have a problem with plodders attempting and running a slow marathon. I also applaud race directors who keep a six or seven hours’ traffic limit. It is good ground where courtesy meets safety. Besides, many race volunteers and staff were at start lines or on course two or three hours before race start. These volunteers may want to go home after ten hours.

    And there is nothing wrong with a walker, plodder or jogger simply walking out his/her front door and attempting 26.2 miles without the crowds, fanfare, and traffic control of a race. It’s called long distance training.

  15. Christy says:

    Late to the comment game, but just wanted to say thanks, Lisa, for an outstanding read and to all for the supportive comments.

    My first marathon took me 18 weeks, 5 hours and 40 minutes. (Hell yes, I include the length of training, because it was part of the whole marathon journey; the 26.2 was just the icing on the cake.) My only goal was to finish. Preferrably upright. And I did.

    The only runner I compete against is myself. Considering when I started out that I could only run for 30 seconds at a time, I’ve come pretty far.

    In my five years of running, every single runner I have met has been supportive, helpful and enthusiastic of my efforts. Runners are awesome people. I’m sorry there are a few bad apples out there, but they are certainly not the majority.

    Thanks again for a fab piece,

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