You Don’t Have to Run a Marathon.

A few years ago, I pulled my head out of the sand and started paying attention to my health and nutrition, and found that life was suddenly much better for me.  With a new found love for nutrition and success stories, I found myself totally fascinated by the hit TV series, The Biggest Loser.  These people were literally changing their lives pound by pound, and in many cases saving their lives as well.

About 6 months after I started running marathons myself, the Biggest Loser introduced a new concept to their season finale episode.  Contestants were surprised at home with a video tape from the trainers, informing them that in 30 days they would be running the “Biggest Loser Marathon” – 26.2 miles down a California highway.

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You would think that this collision of two of my favorite things – marathons and weight loss success stories – would have me jumping for joy.  But it’s actually quite the contrary.  Last night, as I watched the contestants gearing up for the race, four seasons since the inaugural marathon, I couldn’t help contain the way I really feel…

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And somewhat to my surprise, my muttering prompted a LOT of responses – some in agreement, and others questioning why exactly I felt that way.  In 140 characters, I summed it up as…

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I know that Biggest Loser contestants are working out for hours and hours each day, and many of them are able to run quite well by the season’s end.  But physical fitness is not enough to prepare anyone for the toll that 26.2 miles will take on the body.  There is a reason that most marathon plans range from 12 to 16 weeks:  that’s how long it takes to (safely) get ready.  In my opinion, having contestants “train” for four weeks to run 26.2 miles is both unrealistic and irresponsible.

But let’s just say for argument’s sake that the contestants ARE physically ready to cross the starting line on marathon day.  Every season, some contestants focus on training for the marathon itself, while others simply continue to do the gym training that they were taught on the Biggest Loser Ranch.  For four seasons in a row now, the contestant who has run the fastest marathon has also lost less weight than the players who ran slower, or even walked.  Previous winners of the $250,000 prize – Helen (5:49:09), Danny (6:55:00), and Michael (6:26:00) – have been some of the last to cross the finish line. 

That is because you are not supposed to run marathons for weight loss.  In fact many people gain weight during marathon training.  To propose that these individuals on a mission to lose large amounts of weight (with with winner earning a hefty monetary prize), should at the same time prepare to put the body through a 26.2 mile feat, is such a huge contradiction that it makes my blood boil.  I feel like the contestants are subconsciously forced to choose between money and health, which goes against the entire point of the show.

But believe it or not, that is still not my biggest gripe about the Biggest Loser marathon.  I feel that forcing the contestants to tackle the long mileage gives the average viewer the impression that in order to be healthy, you have to run a marathon.  And that is just simply SO not true.

I am the first to admit it – running marathons makes me happy.  It makes me feel alive, and I crave the satisfaction I get from long runs.  To date, I have run 5 full marathons (but trained for 6), and someday I hope to be able to say I’ve run twenty. 

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I get emails from readers all the time that say things like “I can’t run nearly as far as you” or “so far I’ve only ever run a 10K” – and every time my heart breaks a little bit. 

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Who decided that in order to be a “real” runner, or even just a healthy athlete, you have to prove it by running a marathon?  When I signed up for my first marathon, it was before the distance was trendy, and I did it in memory of my best friend’s dad who had recently passed away.  And after that first race, I was totally hooked.  I’m certainly not saying that people should NOT run marathons, and I am the first person to tell you that I truly believe anyone can do it with proper training and the right mindset. 

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Marathons have gone mainstream, and I think it’s wonderful that so many former couch-potatoes are now marathon success stories.  But in the age of the internet, it’s so easy to feel like you are the only person NOT training for a hard core endurance event.  You log into Facebook Saturday morning and see wall posts (rightfully) bragging of new mileage records.  Or you scroll through your Google Reader and realize that 7 of the 10 bloggers you love most are training for marathons.  But as a marathoner myself, let me be the one to say it…

You do not have to run a marathon.

Heck, you don’t ev
en have to run!  Health is not measured in miles.  I hate seeing people striving for health and for success, constantly feeling like they aren’t doing enough.  What works for one runner may never happen for another, and that’s okay.  Running is an individual sport, and (unless you are an elite runner) you are truly only ever running against yourself. 

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There is no reason that a 5K runner should feel any less proud than a marathon finisher.  Is Ryan Hall a more accomplished runner than Usain Bolt, because Hall runs 26.2 miles and Bolt only sprints 100 meters?  Bolt has an Olympic gold medal, Hall doesn’t.  They are both successes because they are striving towards individual goals, for which there is no comparison. 

Running has brought so much joy into my life, and I love that it is a sport where any and everyone can participate.  Running has brought me friends…

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And it has taught me that I am capable of pushing myself to do things that I once thought were impossible. 

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But even with 5 marathons medals on my wall, my proudest running moment will always be the first time I ran for one entire mile without stopping.  It was the first time I felt like I was no longer the fat girl, but instead – an athlete.

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It didn’t take 26.2 miles for me to feel like a real runner – it only took one.