Marathoning: The One Olympic Event You Could Compete In (for 4 Minutes)

Why long-distance running offers spectators a rare chance to experience what it's like to be an Olympian.


The best place to watch an Olympic marathon is on a treadmill. You don't have to stay on it for the duration of the event, but running along with the contestants for a little while can provide unique insight into the truly remarkable nature of Olympic competition.

There's a problem with watching most professional and Olympic sports: The average human being cannot meaningfully relate to what transpires on the fields of play. While many sports fans have played or continue to play the sports they watch, the disparity in skill level between even the best amateur athletes and the worst professionals destroys all possibility of understanding context. Try as we may, we cannot replicate the conditions of top-notch competition.

Maybe you played basketball in high school, and maybe you can still go to a hoop at a local park and hit 10 jump shots in a row. That doesn't mean you understand how difficult it is for Kevin Durant to hit a three-pointer with an NBA defender draped all over him. Maybe you were a tennis prodigy as a child and can still consistently hit the ball deep into the corners of the court with significant speed and topspin. That doesn't mean you understand what it takes for Rafael Nadal to hit a winner off Roger Federer's first serve. And maybe you play flag football on the weekends and happen to lead your team in receptions. Keep in mind that running a fly pattern in a recreational league is not comparable to doing so on an NFL field where defensive back are trying to hit, and in some cases hurt, downfield receivers.

This may seem like a somewhat obvious idea—Usain Bolt is more athletic than you!—but it's worth considering. The difference in athletic abilities between sports fans and the athletes they watch is so great that, even if given the chance, the average person could not meaningfully exist on a playing field with elite competitors. If you inserted the average Joe or Jane onto a basketball court or football field with a group of professionals, that person's presence would not even register. If you put an average person in an Olympic speed race like the 100-meter dash—an event where the top performers run at speeds that exceed 26 miles per hour—that person would appear to be running through quicksand. The level of play in professional and Olympic sports is so high that it practically constitutes an entirely different reality from the amateur level, and that has repercussions for our understanding of sports and our feelings towards athletes.

To quote author David Shields, "the body-in-motion is, for me, the site of the most meaning." I agree with that sentiment and have spent a disproportionate amount of my life trying to glean meaning from watching professional athletes practice their craft. But how much meaning can I get just by watching? If I can't imitate the conditions of play, can I really understand all the things professional sports have to teach?

Long-distance running is the one exception to this paradox. It's a sport where the average person can begin to understand what professionals go through. The last-place finisher in the 2008 Olympics men's marathon was Atsushi Sato of Japan, who completed the race in two hours, forty-one minutes and eight seconds. Several participants did not finish. To achieve that time, Sato averaged an approximate speed 9.77 miles per hour, which is about the equivalent of running a six minute and eight second mile.

Most people on this earth can reach a speed of 9.77 miles per hour. Whether on a treadmill, a dirt path, or a track, the average human, when pushed, can achieve that type of speed. It may take a hefty ounce of determination, or an oversized can of Red Bull, but running 9.77 miles per hour is achievable. The average human cannot, however, maintain that speed for anywhere near as long as Mr. Sato of Japan, but by replicating that speed for as long as possible a person can begin to understand the level of fitness Olympic runners possess.

So when the Olympic marathon rolls around on Saturday morning, grab your tennis shoes, hop on a treadmill, and program it to run at a six-minute-mile pace. That's the easy part. The tricky part will be to see how long you can keep it up. If you're like me, you'll be reprogramming the speed dial at some point before you complete your first mile, and after you've completed three miles, you will opt to watch the rest of the race from the comfort of your couch. Whenever I try to sustain Olympic Marathon type of speed, my lungs start to burn, my legs turn to rubber, and my complexion begins to resemble the colors found on most Valentine's Day cards. I cannot, and probably never will be able to, fathom how a human being can run at that speed for over two and a half hours—though it pleases me to know I could match strides with the world's best distance runners for about four minutes. My best recorded mile time is six minutes and four seconds. Mr. Sato of Japan completed 26.2 miles at around that speed. Even though he finished last at the 2008 Olympics, he is still a superhuman athlete in my mind.

Running is the most elemental sport we have. Its premise is so simple: Run a certain distance in less time than everyone else. And people of all ages can relate to it. Children stage races in schoolyards and cul-de-sacs to determine who is the fastest kid on the block; adults run and jog to stay in shape. Olympic running gives us a sense of who the fastest person of all the blocks around the world is. While the vast majority of us will never be able to experience the speeds achieved by top sprinters, we can run, for at least a short amount time, at the same speed as Olympic marathoners. And when our bodies begin to falter after one mile or five or 10, the truly difficult nature of this sport will mean more to us than ever before.