Accessibility links

Breaking News

More Americans Take on the Physical Test of Marathon Races

There were 380,000 finishers last year. Transcript of radio broadcast:


Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.


And I’m Barbara Klein. Many people enjoy running. But one kind of race, the marathon, has captured the imagination of people all over the world. The race has roots in ancient history. But there is nothing ancient about today’s modern sports and social events.



Many Americans enjoy the experience of running a forty-two kilometer race. Three hundred fourteen marathons were held in the United States last year. An estimated three hundred eighty-two thousand runners completed these marathons. And that number is expected to increase this year.

The biggest marathon in the nation is the New York City marathon. The runners pass famous landmarks in America’s most famous city. It also is a major sporting event with at least one hundred thousand dollars going to each winner.

On November fifth, almost thirty-eight thousand people finished the race. Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil was the men’s champion in just under two hours and ten minutes. Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia was the women’s champion for the second straight year. She finished in just over two hours and twenty-five minutes.

The most famous person in the race, however, may have been bicyclist Lance Armstrong. The seven-time Tour de France champion made big news by running in this year’s race. Armstrong’s excellent physical condition helped him complete the marathon in just under three hours. Fewer than two percent of all marathon runners do that. But, after the race, Armstrong admitted that the race was "the hardest physical thing I have ever done."


While the New York City marathon is the biggest, the Boston Marathon in Massachusetts is the oldest and equally famous. The Boston Athletic Association started the race in eighteen ninety-seven. That is less than one year after the first Olympic marathon in Athens, Greece.

Boston is unlike most other big marathons because it is held in April. Boston is also famous for another first. Roberta Gibb became the first woman to unofficially run that marathon in nineteen sixty-six. At the time, male racing officials did not believe women could run marathons. It was not until nineteen seventy-two that women could officially compete in Boston. The Olympics did not hold a women’s marathon event until nineteen eighty-four in Los Angeles, California.


Today’s marathons do not bar anyone because of sex or age. Many middle-aged people like to spend a weekend visiting a new city and running a marathon there. Time magazine has called the middle-aged people of today the "marathon generation." Forty-three percent of marathon runners in the United States are forty years old or older.

The sport has spread among people who are interested in health and fitness. The lifestyle of this age group has changed a lot since the nineteen seventies when many marathons started to be organized.

Racing has expanded to average runners. They can take part in races from five to ten kilometers. Hundreds of these races are organized in the United States every year. They are often in connection with a cause like fighting disease or supporting local hospitals and schools.

Marathons are a natural extension of the fitness movement. Many offer training programs, usually in cooperation with a local running club. These programs help runners, who never thought they could run forty-two kilometers, prepare for the big race.


There are many organizations for marathoners. For example, there is a Fifty States Marathon Club. People who want to run marathons in all fifty states can join. For people who want to run farther, ultra-marathons take running to a different level. An ultra-marathon is any race longer than a marathon.

One of the oldest is the Western States Endurance Run, held every June. Runners race from Squaw Valley, California, to the town of Auburn through a high mountain pass. The race is one hundred sixty kilometers long. This year, two hundred ten people finished the race. The winner, Graham Cooper, finished in eighteen hours and seventeen minutes.



Washington, D.C., has its own major marathon. The Marine Corps Marathon is the fifth largest race in the country. This year almost twenty thousand runners completed the race. An estimated one hundred twenty thousand people watched the race. Our Special English writer Mario Ritter tells us about his experience running the Marine Corps Marathon October twenty-ninth.


First, I must say that my experience preparing for and running a marathon is my own. If you want to run a marathon, talk to your doctor. See if you are healthy enough to try this difficult event and set realistic goals. As we will see, too much exercise at one time can be dangerous.

A marathon really starts several months before the race. I would run about five days every week to prepare for my marathon run. Most runs were for half an hour. I would try to run for an hour or more each Sunday. This is a very basic way for an average runner like myself to prepare.

But running in a big marathon with thousands of other runners is an unforgettable experience that you really cannot prepare for.


There is a lot of shouting at the start of the race. I think runners want to release some tension. They have three to five hours of hard running ahead of them.

The hardest part of the first half of a marathon is avoiding other runners in narrow areas on the road. The field of runners remains crowded until about the twenty kilometer point in the race. People are also running their fastest. It is important to keep your balance and avoid tripping other runners or yourself.

About fifteen kilometers into the race, the road turned in such a way that my group of runners could see the leader. He was Jared Nyamboki of Kenya. He looked to be running well on this cold windy morning. I guessed that he would be the winner because he had a big lead.

I later found out that Mexican Ruben Garcia had passed Nyamboki at about the thirty-three kilometer mark. Nyamboki had started at a rate that would have given him the record for the event. But he slowed and later stopped. Garcia won the race in a time of two hours and twenty-one minutes.

I was having my own problems at the time Garcia was crossing the finish line. At the twenty-fourth kilometer, my leg muscles started to become very tense. I could not stretch my legs out to take a normal step, or stride. Taking smaller strides, I was going slower and slower.


I had met my speed goal for the first half of the marathon. But now, I could see I would not reach my goal of three hours and forty-five minutes for the race.

Running slower did offer me a chance to look around. A young man dressed like Superman passed me. He drew many cheers from the crowd and added to the holiday-like atmosphere.

A marathon is in many ways a social event. There is also a sense of community. Observers are as much a part of the race as the runners. Almost every age group is present. The youngest competitor to finish was fourteen years old. The oldest was eighty-two.

And there is a lot of evidence of social change. When I started running in high school fewer women ran. In this marathon, forty percent of the competitors are women. In fact, women are running faster and longer distances. Laura Thompson won this year’s race in just over three hours. That puts her in the top two percent of all marathon runners.

Paula Radcliff of Britain holds the women’s world record at two hours fifteen minutes and twenty-five seconds. In fewer than forty years of running, women have lowered their world record at a much faster rate than men have in one hundred ten years. The future of marathons may hold more female overall winners.

The extreme physical demands of marathons can also be dangerous. This year, a fifty-six year-old man suffered a heart attack and later died.


I finished the marathon in four hours and three minutes. I had a lot of pain in my legs. And I had fallen short of my goal. But the experience was wonderful. I started planning my next marathon run that very afternoon.



Our program was written and produced by our marathon runner Mario Ritter. Audio of the Marine Corps Marathon was provided by Hank Silverberg of WTOP news. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Barbara Klein. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.