dr. adam wolfberg is an obstetrician, a runner, and a writer.

The difference between a marathon and a 5K

Practically anyone who decides to run a 5K could do it tomorrow. It’s 3.1 miles - an easy hour-long walk for the non-runner who wants to get out there and pin on a bib. I have two daughters who run, and one who doesn’t, and all three of them are at the starting line most Thanksgivings for an annual turkey trot.

Practically anyone who decides to complete a marathon can do that too - you just can’t do it tomorrow - and that’s why finishing a marathon is more satisfying than finishing a 5K.

Let’s get winning out of the way: about a half-million Americans will run a marathon this year and more than 90 percent will finish the race (99 percent of runners who started the 2017 New York marathon finished) yet only a tiny fraction of those lined up give any thought to the podium. This is a sport about personal accomplishment, and the most satisfying part is getting to the starting line.

I know, I know... a few of you out there practice your speed work, keep track of your “PR’s” (personal record, for the uninitiated), and seek to break some time threshold (mine was a Boston Qualifying time, but that’s another blog). That’s awesome, and inspiring, but truthfully, what matters is how important it is to you - how it makes you feel - because you’re not out there to win.

Training for a marathon takes commitment. Most training programs are 18 weeks long, and demand 3-4 hours/week of running in the beginning, and up to eight hours/week toward the end. Most programs recommend 5-6 runs per week, which means getting on a treadmill when the weather doesn’t cooperate, running while on vacation, or getting outside when traveling for work. Plus, running injuries are common, so planning and care are critical (as is luck).

It’s a common saying among runners that no one ever regrets a run, only not going for a run. But taking the first step when you’re tired, or busy, or hungover can be hard. The truth is that there are many reasons not to go for a run, but when the run itself solves the problem that almost prevented you from walking out the door, you begin to understand what running is all about.

Race day for a marathon is also different. No one gets to the finish line of a marathon without eating and drinking, and it requires preparation: knowing what to eat, when to eat, what to drink, and timing fluid intake appropriately. Marathons are about strategy, planning, preparation, and ultimately execution. There’s also race-day luck: weather is unpredictable, and some days are just better than others.

I’ve run four marathons, and I’ve teared up in each of them. The first one I ran with my middle daughter (parents will understand this); In the second, I looked left off the Verrazano Narrows and saw One World Trade Center; Finishing my third I knew I had genuinely left 100 percent of myself on the course; Most recently heading into mile 20, I knew I would qualify for Boston, which meant a great deal to me (and only to me). There was one other time too: going out for my last training run in the predawn cold before my first marathon, I thought about what a gift the 18 week training regimen had been at a reasonably dark time in my life.

Running is not a team sport, but runners often share a bond that draws on our shared individual experience. Running brings us closer together (admittedly, running talk annoys non-runners, so be careful to whom you start gushing) -- and brings my family closer together. I love that my wife and two of my kids run. My wife feels closer to her deceased mom who ran marathons when she runs.

There are 1,100 marathons in the United States every year. Which one is 18 weeks in your future?

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