Picture by Joshua J Cotten (Unsplash)

During the 1970s the marathon transitioned from an elite competitive event to one with a recreational appeal, as a result of the known as “running boom of the 70s”. During this period marathon positioned itself as a commercial event, appealing to slower recreational runners by extending the cut-off finish times and allowing more runners to officially complete the marathon distance.  Therefore, the number of marathon finishers in the United States raised from 25 thousand in 1976 to over 500 thousand by 2012.

With so many participants it seems clear that the marathon distance has become an event where competition against others may not be the unique goal for all runners. Motivations for marathon running are complex. Thus, many actual runners identify “marathon running” as a recreational activity or lifestyle, but it is also used as a tool of empowerment, stress reduction, weight control, to improve mood, enhance in social relationships, travel, or even get charities fundraising.

Despite all these motivations the concepts of finish time and pace remain dominant. Personal bests and qualifying times dominate training plans in running sections and social media, as marks of distinction. Therefore, running one or two marathons per year is the “norm”, following not so different training programs.

However, the differences between fastest marathon times and average finisher times has increased over the years, increasing by 45 minutes since 1980. It shows that there is a big group of runners that has stopped to worry so much about “finishing times” to focus on “finishing lines”. The goal for them has moved from “results” to the “experience” itself.


The Marathon Maniacs US running club

In line with this trend focusing on experiencing the marathon, the Marathon Maniacs running club was created in 2003 in the United States around the idea of seeing how many marathons one could run within specific time periods. To become a Maniac there are different possibilities. The most common entry level is the “Bronze” level (1 star): run 2 marathons in 16 days or 3 marathons within 90 days.

Once accepted into the club, individuals are assigned a unique sequential number and enter the “Insane Asylum”. Once they are Maniac, they have nine levels of membership. To move from one level to the next they must complete more races in shorter time periods.

The highest Maniac level is the “Titanium” level (10 stars). Hitting this achievement can be done in one of three ways: (1) 52 marathons or more within 365 days, in any location, (2) 30 marathons in 20 different U.S. states, countries, or Canadian Provinces within 365 days, or (3) 20 marathons, with each being in a different country, within 365 days.

Contrary to usual narratives in the marathon about speed and winning, star levels are not based on race times but on race numbers.

But even in the Maniacs club, some subgroups try combining the old and new way, as the subgroup “50sub4”. To qualify, members must run a sub 4:00 marathon in all fifty states.

The example of this Maniacs club has spanned to other countries, many times under the “100 marathon club” banner, with different regulations and rules.

Alongside this acknowledgement of individuals running multiple marathons is the Rock ´n Roll Marathon Series, among others, that has recently started celebrating completion of 15 events in its series with entrance in a “Hall of Fame” or offer special medal combinations when completing certain races.


The Clydesdale rankings

With more runners completing the marathon it was thought of a new way to compare results and rankings based on body weight.

That was behind the creation of the Clydesdale categories, allowing runners to compare their results to runners with similar body types. These categories are in use in marathons such as the Marine Corps and Portland marathon.

Why compare the results of a big runner with a typical lean marathon elite runner? Research has shown that people who are overweight can still be fit. Furthermore, it’s better to be fat and fit than thin and sedentary: death rates for thin people who don’t exercise are at least twice as high as those for obese people who stay active.


Final remarks

As you can see there are many ways of acknowledging people running achievements besides the traditional focus on finishing times. Each runner has different motivations and personal circumstances when deciding to run a marathon. A welcome and healthy mania many of us cannot escape.

What type of runner are you: a collector or an achiever?



Finish Lines, Not Finish Times: Making Meaning of the “Marathon Maniacs”

December 2016 Sociology of sport journal 33(4), doi: 10.1123/ssj.2016-0016

Cohen DT, Hanold M

Drawing by J Yong

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