From Messenger to Masochist: Cultural Motivations of Marathon Runners

Greece , Australia , Egypt , United Arab Emirates , Tanzania , South Africa

European marathon champion Veikko Karvonen once said, ” Marathon running is a terrible experience. It’s monotonous, heavy, and exhausting.” If even the best runners describe the marathon as a masochistic endeavor, then the lingering question remains – Why would a person put him/herself through such a painful and grueling experience willingly? Do personal motivations differ between cultures or does running mentality form a sub-culture that transcends national boundaries? While I will address how I plan to answer such questions that motivate me personally as a marathon runner, my excitement and passions center on learning of motivations and experiences I cannot yet imagine.

The worldwide marathon boom of the 1970s arrived unexpectedly and suddenly. Prior to that decade, there were very few regular marathons in the world besides the annual Boston Marathon and the quadrennial Olympic race. Today, millions of runners compete in at least one marathon each year, and marathon races can be found by the dozens on any given weekend somewhere in the world. In the past decade, ultra marathons have also emerged with increasing popularity. These races, defined as any distance beyond 26.2 miles, take marathoning to the extreme and have most likely become popular among runners with an even more intense motivation and greater passion to run. Some runners might explain their participation as a method to immerse themselves in their country’s history, others’ motivations might center on fitness, and yet others might run marathons in order to see new sights and travel the world in a more meaningful way. Obviously, these goals could be carried out through alternate means, so why, then, do people run marathons? I believe the only way to answer this question is to gather information directly from its primary source – the internal logic of marathon runners across various cultures. By listening to runners’ stories and passions, by running with them and hearing their motivations, and by visiting countries that host the most attractive and historical marathons, I hope to discover the cultural motivations of these masochistic marathon runners.

I can think of no other event pursued by people of all cultures that fits the definition of masochism better than the marathon – a willingness or tendency to subject oneself to unpleasant or trying experiences. The whole idea of running a marathon is paradoxical. For Australian runner John Farrington, ” Marathoning is like cutting yourself unexpectedly. You dip into the pain so gradually that the damage is done before you are aware of it. Unfortunately, when awareness comes, it is excruciating,” but like most other runners, he makes no mention of his enjoyment. As rational actors, individuals must perceive a benefit of running that outweighs the immense agony, yet so many first convey to others the pain. The puzzle still remains concerning the real and actual paybacks obtained. To arrive at a comprehensive view of motivation, it will be necessary to examine a cross-section of cultures with a variety of values, religions, histories, and physical landscapes. These cultures should allow comparisons in group, individual, gender, historical, and religious motivations across cultures. It is also imperative to schedule my visits to each country during or just before its marathon season in order to have accessibility to as many different marathoners in training as possible. During a country’s marathon season, an entire marathon culture is awakened when runners line the streets and begin to add more weekly mileage as they prepare mentally for the task they have undertaken.

The birthplace of the marathon is Athens and therefore Greece is a central site of my proposed journey. Legend suggests it was here in 490 B.C.E. that Pheidippides, a messenger for the Athenian army, ran two famous stretches that are still celebrated today, the first as the “Spartathlon,” a 150-mile race in September, and the Athens Marathon in November. These two events frame my stay in Greece . Between these two races, I plan to immerse myself in Greek culture while talking with native Greek runners to uncover their motives for running. I have arranged an interview with the race director during these months to reveal unique historical Greek ties to the sport. Pheidippides had a sound motivation to run; it was his job and he had to do it well in order to save his empire. Uncovering the motivations of current Greek runners should prove a much more challenging enterprise.

I have also chosen to visit Australia because of its dedication to marathon running over the last decade, as well as its similarity to the United States . Along Australia ‘s east coast, numerous marathons have sprung up in the last few decades. Each city has dozens of running clubs, but my contacts with several clubs in Australia suggest that Sydney is the place where I will be able to collect the most information from marathon runners. The world-famous Sydney Marathon, one of the best organized in the world, will take place in early September. I have been in touch with the Sydney Marathon race director, as well as the President of the Sydney Striders, a running club with weekly runs and hundreds of active participants. Through the running clubs in each country I visit, I hope to make contacts and become socialized in the country’s running culture.

In addition to western cultures, it is critical to immerse myself in a country where cultural and social norms suggest different motivations. I have chosen Egypt as a location because, in stark contrast to my culture, being fit and athletic is not a goal of the privileged. Here, it will be important to observe the social classes to which these runners belong: How do upper class Egyptians and lower class Egyptians view running and physical fitness? Is “fitness” a luxury only reserved for the wealthy in developing societies such as Egypt ? This Arab country hosts several marathons and draws many native Egyptian runners to the events. I plan to immerse myself in their culture by living with an Egyptian family in Cairo to gain a deeper understanding of their inherent cultural and religious beliefs, which will in turn help me to discover more about Egyptians’ motivations for marathoning.

The Middle Eastern culture, which is closely tied to religion, family and history, should provide a unique perspective on the questions I have posed. The first race I plan to focus on is the Pharaonic100km Ultra-Marathon, which ends in Cairo . In the 1970s, scholars uncovered hieroglyphics that reveal a story of a race organized by King Taharka in 690 B.C.E. which Egyptian soldiers ran. The King was very supportive of long-distance running to improve the military ability of his nation, and even participated in a segment of the course to show his support. Present day race organizers have retraced the ancient course that passes by some of Egypt ‘s most important landmarks during an annual race held on the last weekend in November. During the months of December and January, I plan to visit local runners training for the Cairo Marathon held in early February 2005, and I will talk to them about their personal motivations.

A side trip to the United Arab Emirates while living in Cairo will allow me to view another cross-section of “Arab-marathon” culture. Because each Middle Eastern culture is unique, a short stay in Dubai for a few weeks during December and January will help me to compare the motivations of Middle-Easterners who run marathons. I have been in correspondence with the race director of the Dubai Marathon, which is scheduled for the beginning of January 2005, as well as with the leaders of two running clubs in the UAE. All have expressed interest in my project and have agreed to help me make accommodations and meet local runners.

Tanzania and its neighboring countries are known worldwide for developing champion marathon runners. Is it topography, mental toughness, cultural factors, or outside interests that make Tanzanian runners so powerful and successful? The focal point of my stay in Tanzania will be the Mt. Kilimanjaro Marathon in March, a marathon route dominated by awe-inspiring landscapes. Are runners here drawn to running because of inherent cultural influences? Immersing myself in a culture characterized by running with breathtaking landscapes and professional runners should provide me with more detailed perspectives of societal and cultural motivations for marathon running.

To conclude the year abroad, I will travel to the tip of the continent for South Africa ‘s famous ultra-marathon season, home to the top ultra marathons in the world. Here I will seek to understand what it is about South African runners that tempt them to push themselves even further to the extreme. The Two Oceans Ultra Marathon in Capetown during April will be an ideal place to discover runners’ motivations. The marathon follows a course around the Cape of Good Hope giving the roughly ten thousand runners spectacular views of both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans . Do they perceive their surroundings and the beautiful oceans as they round the Cape , or is all lost in an arduous attempt to reach the finish line, concentrating solely on their race? The largest ultra-marathon in South Africa , the Comrades in June, with a field of over 14,000 runners will be held at the end of my stay. It is run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban and its popularity might be attributed to its historical purpose to commemorate the lives of South African World War I veterans. In the three months between these two races, I hope to live with a South African runner and train with the runners in the months leading up to the Comrades.

The answers to these puzzling questions associated with the sociology and psychology of marathoning cannot be captured accurately in a questionnaire, but rather must be explored by getting to know those who are submitting themselves to the pain of marathoning. I will look into their faces as they run and challenge them to answer difficult questions about their motivations that are not easily answered. Runners tend to be extremely cooperative by nature and it is this sense of community that will make my project feasible, personal, and exciting. This project will help me develop a clearer sense of myself as a runner and interpreter of other cultures. T rying to describe the marathon experience to a non-runner, Canadian runner Jerome Drayton struggled, “It is like trying to explain color to someone who was born blind.” By undertaking such a challenging project, I hope to gain insight into my own motivation by focusing on this intriguing paradox while learning about my thoughts, ambitions, and future aspirations.