Marathon Walking - Why the Marathon is so Tough

Exhausted at the Marathon
Exhausted at the Marathon. Neustockimages/E+/Getty Images

Marathon finishers wear their medal with pride. It is a badge of honor, a signal to the rest of the world that you are tough and made it through a grueling long distance race. After all, the first marathoner, Pheidippides, declared "Nike!" (which translates as "Victory") and dropped dead at the end. Even today, it's not rare to hear of people dying on the course. Whether you ran the whole course, did a run/walk technique or were a pure walker, you faced a supreme challenge.

But what exactly makes the 26.2 mile marathon so tough?

Running on Empty - the Marathon Duration Depletes Your Energy Stores

The 26.2 mile marathon is a challenging running event because of its duration. After two hours of running, by the 20 mile mark for fast runners, the body runs out of glycogen (stored sugar) and begins breaking down the protein in muscles and tissues for fuel. They call this "bonking" or "hitting the wall." The body should start to burning stored fat, but it can't because some carbohydrate is needed to allow the burning of fat, but it is all gone. If runners don't snack soon enough and often enough, they will bonk.

Walkers (other than racewalkers) don't experience bonking as often, even on a marathon. At a slower pace the body uses fat stores for energy throughout the event and doesn't need to start burning up its own muscles instead. Walkers are likely to get progressively tired throughout the long distance, but without the paralyzing experience of hitting the wall.

You are able to take in enough calories with energy snacks and carbohydrate-containing sports drinks to keep your energy stores from being completely drained.

Getting Fluid Replacement Right is a Marathon Challenge

Those who aren't careful to drink the right amount water and electrolyte replacement drinks during the race will feel the effects of dehydration or hyponatremia.

Slower racers who obediently drink at every stop can get into fluid overload. It takes attention during your long distance training to get it right.

Marathon courses generally provide drinks, but even large events have disasters where they run out of water or sports drink or can't keep up with the mass of runners. Tail-end walkers often encounter closed-up hydration stops.

More Marathon Hazards

The fastest runners can finish a marathon in three hours or less. Elite racewalkers can take under four hours. But the typical walker takes from five to nine hours to complete a marathon at a walking pace. That is a long time to be out in the elements exerting yourself.

Blisters and chafing, sunburn and heat illness are common hazards.

After a marathon, the strain on the body is apparent. Even without walking at a speed that leads to burning up muscle, the marathoner gets tiny tears in the muscles and there is build-up of the toxic breakdown products from exercise - lactic acid, etc.

Muscle strains and sprains are more likely due to fatigue during the race.

Caution: Marathons are Addicting

But by being so tough, marathons also become addictive. While some people can do "just one," and most vow never to do it again after their first, plenty of people get hooked on seeing if they can improve their times from year to year.

Hal Higdon, who has run over 100 marathons, writes, "In a marathon, you don't beat others. Instead, you achieve a personal victory." It is a very personal event, each participant having their own goal to achieve, often just to finish.

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