Midweek rant: Extreme marathoning is unhealthy, not heroic

An unanticipated aspect of Doing the Marathon for me is being invited to comment on media stories about people who’ve run some inhuman number of Marathons in a week/month. I never really paid attention to them before; now they seem to be everywhere. I don’t know if it’s the same for new parents: you have one baby and suddenly all these articles fly at you about someone who has ten kids and runs an intergalactic empire with daily meetings before breakfast. Does this happen? Anyway, my opinion (with respect to Eddie Izzard – one of my late pals was a huge fan) , is that I am not over-keen on these extreme stories. We have two pervasive strands of media at the moment that it would be quite nice to see less of. One is pointing and shouting at vulnerable people who do “wrong” things (eat too much, eat too little, claim benefits, etc). The other is glorifying people who do something excessive which, if they weren’t famous or media-genic, would probably land them with a psychiatric diagnosis.

There’s a difference between challenging yourself (which, at some point, in some form, is healthy for all of us) and doing something plainly ridiculous. Unless you’re a pro athlete (and probably even then) doing several Marathons a week or month isn’t good for you at all. It’s probably about as healthy for you as recreational drugs, burning yourself or covering your entire body in tattoos – we don’t celebrate people for doing those. And while we’re here, I don’t understand why having six kids and running a business empire is considered “inspirational” as opposed to masochistic either (regardless of gender, I mean. Although of course only women are asked why….)

It’s understandable why excess sells, or why people think it does. “Parenting pieces are boring, we need extreme parenting!” ” Running pieces are boring, we need extreme running!” “Fundraisers are boring, we need extreme fundraisers!” “We all have to balance different priorities in our lives, let’s find people who take perverse pride in having the biggest amount on their plate!” And of course, people who achieve things want to talk about it. Writing about your achievements or experiences is not inherently offensive to someone who doesn’t have the same ones as you. Most people who manage something “against all odds” want to tell their stories (“Look! I did it – anyone can!”) to encourage others, not to boast or bully. Unfortunately, achievements, extreme examples of them in particular, can be used to belittle those who really can’t match them “Look at you, person who might be struggling with normal working hours, moderate exercise, an ordinary-sized family. Look at what this person over here does!”  For the record, I don’t want the Marathon or anything else I ever do in life to be used to kick someone else. It’s quite true each of us is probably able to find sanctuary in achieving something that we haven’t thought of yet. But it’s up to you, not me, to find your own Something, in your own time – and yours might not be the same as mine.

I heard a speaker recently who, a few years ago, ran a Marathon a week for a mental health charity and got a lot of press for it. His motivation came from compensating for an injury that left him unable to play his beloved rugby, and from losing his dad to suicide as a teenager. Bloody good for him for finding some comfort out of those two awful situations, and of course it would be horrible to rain on that in any way. But the focus of the reporting – and his talks – was very much on the grief that led him to such an extreme, and his mental health awareness drive, not on celebrating what he put himself through as such. He’s now a personal trainer and often works with other mental health charity runners to help them achieve what’s realistic for their own situation. He doesn’t encourage other people to do what he did, or be like him (quite the opposite, actually – he has said the sponsorship he actually got – little more than most people get for a single Marathon – wasn’t worth the pain).

At a certain point in any excess, the question of what are you trying to prove, to whom and why has to be asked. If exercise is not about keeping fit and happy but effectively torturing yourself, how is that different to addiction or self-harm and why is it better than those things?

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