What makes people run long and extra long distances? What drives a person who has to endure hours of pain, deadly fatigue, and sometimes even despair? And yet...
There are more and more of them.
The first Olympic marathon in Athens in 1896 involved 17 athletes. The winner, then, covered the 42-kilometre distance in 2:58:50 - today a respectable time, but almost an hour worse than the fastest marathon runners of today.
Also, we now understand a lot more about the phenomenon of long-distance running from a scientific point of view, from the effects on health to psychological motivation.
The vast majority of marathon runners do not expect to win Olympic medals or have their names commemorated in sports history books. Training alone, however, takes up a lot of time, energy and energy, and the race itself is excruciating even for the champions.
Despite all this, the number of marathon runners in the USA, for example, has increased by 255% since 1980 and the number of entries for the London Marathon and the Alton Towers Half Marathon has grown every year (there are now nearly a quarter of a million runners, compared to just 50,000 places).
To give you an example, 1,298,725 people completed the marathon distance worldwide in 2018.
For health - including mental health
The most obvious reasons why people are drawn to 'marathon running' are clear - the positive effects of running on physical and mental health.
Of course, some people worry about whether the rigours of training and exhausting competitions will harm their bodies, especially if you're ill-equipped. But it seems that the health benefits more than outweigh the risks when training properly.
The benefits of losing weight and keeping your cardiovascular system in check are well known, but research is constantly revealing more and more benefits of long-distance running.
For example, marathons reduce the age of your arteries and also seem to improve cognitive brain function and eye health (as shown in a recent study by scientists from the University of Augsburg in Germany).
Are women better runners?
Research shows that women are better at keeping up with the pace of running over the marathon distance than men.
Jens Andersen, a marathon runner and statistician at the Copenhagen Business School in Copenhagen, collected data from 131 marathons and studied the degree to which runners of both sexes slowed down over the course. The men's speed dropped more sharply during the deceleration period.
Although men tend to perform better than women in marathons, women may have an advantage over ultra-long runs due to the fact that they have more aerobic ('slow') muscle fibres, which help them cope better with fatigue.
Drunk from running
Finally, the last often-cited motivating factor for long-distance runners is that special sensation known as 'runner's euphoria' (a state of particular elation, similar to mild intoxication, seen in athletes during prolonged physical activity, resulting in an increased resistance to pain and fatigue), that is the real pleasure of running. So what goes on in the brains of marathon runners?
Endorphin hormones are thought to play a role, but the tranquil state of quiet joy that some people report may be due to elevated levels of endocannabinoids in the blood.
As a result, during a long-distance run, the brain may weaken or erase the memory of pain.