Run a Marathon. Quickly Followed by Another.
Marathon runners can be compulsive beasts by nature. So it should be no surprise that a rising number of runners have decided to take their marathoning to the next level. Not by running ultra marathons, races that exceed the 26.2 miles of a standard marathon, but by running multiple marathons within a short period of time.
I should know. I’m one of them. This year I decided to dip my toe into the world of multiple marathoning by doing what I soon learned was a “classic double” — running two marathons back to back: the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 6 and the New York City Marathon on Nov. 4.
To be clear, many marathon organizers, including those in Chicago and New York, do not encourage it. Run our marathons, they say, but if you want to do more? Well, be careful.
My sister, an accomplished running coach, rolled her eyes when I told her my plans. “You’re an idiot,” she said. Siblings.
Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, remembers trying to talk one of his patients out of running multiple marathons four or five years ago. “I didn’t even know what ‘doubling’ was. I thought it was crazy,” he said. “But he did it, and he was fine.”
In his practice, he’s since seen an uptick in the number of runners attempting more than one marathon a season, which has led him to reconsider his views. “I used to say as a blanket statement that it was a terrible idea,” Dr. Metzl said. “Now I say most people can’t do it. But, some can.”
Hal Higdon, a prominent online coach who offers various levels of training programs ranging from 5 kilometer races to marathons, added a multiple marathon plan to his site more than 10 years ago, when he recognized the “new demand.”
“People like Thom Gilligan of Marathon Tours were promoting insane activities like seven marathons on seven continents and 50 marathons in 50 states, and I thought it might be fun to support those hearing that call,” Mr. Higdon said. He notes that demand for his multiple training plans has only increased, growing 34 percent from 2016 to 2017, then another 26 percent in 2018 so far, though far more people stick with his marathon and half-marathon plans.
Mr. Higdon calls multiple marathons “acts of insanity,” but that hasn’t stopped him from following the call. Now 87, he ran six marathons in six weeks to celebrate his 60th birthday, then seven marathons in seven months to celebrate his 70th.
In 2003, Chris Warren, Steven Yee and Tony Phillippi founded a club called the Marathon Maniacs, a competition to see who could run the most marathons in a set period of time. At the time, “running more than one or two marathons a year made you seem insane,” said Mr. Warren, who estimates he has run some “250-ish” marathons. “We wanted to break out of that mold. We were happy to have 10 members.”
Today, Marathon Maniacs has more than 14,000 members, all of whom must qualify for membership by running a minimum of two marathons within 16 days or three marathons within 90 days. A few hundred people have reached the top-tier level, which requires completing at least 52 marathons within 365 days.
Race organizers have likewise responded to the growing demand. Chuck Savage founded a series called the Savage Seven in 2010, challenging runners to run seven marathons back to back over the course of a week. Why? “To fill the void between Christmas and New Year’s,” said the race director, JC Santa Teresa. Obviously.
In 2012, Mr. Savage started the New England Challenge, in which runners race six marathons in six days in six states.
Similar challenges now exist across the United States, including Boston 2 Big Sur, two marathons in two weeks on opposite coasts, and the Mitten Challenge, back-to-back marathons in Wisconsin and Michigan.
Part of the boom may be thanks to the rise of apps like Strava that let users see the training logs and stats of fellow athletes.
“The beauty of social media is you find people who are just as crazy as you,” said Andrew Simmons, the head coach of Lifelong Endurance. “There’s an inherent competitiveness as humans to see what we’re capable of.”
Coaches and fellow multi-marathoners generally offer the same advice for those considering multiple marathons. Rest and recovery between races is critical. And doing more than one marathon at full effort is probably not the best idea, nor completely feasible. Indeed, most people doing multiple marathons treat some as races and some as “fully supported long runs,” Mr. Warren said.
“Most people are resigned to whatever happens, happens, for the second marathon,” Mr. Simmons said. “It’s a good learning experience for runners.”
If running more than one marathon taught me one thing, it’s humility. The battle faced over 26.2 miles is an exhausting one, and continuing at a set pace requires overcoming the mind and body’s internal signals to stop. In Chicago, I faced stomach cramps for 18 miles but managed to hang on for a six-minute personal best. In New York, I was having too much fun and my mind was wandering, so when I got to mile 21 and my legs started screaming with lactic acid, the mental battle was a half-fought one. I was mentally and physically spent, and close to vomiting. Nevertheless I managed to cross the finish line, though six minutes slower than in Chicago.
Perhaps that’s what running multiple marathons is all about. For many distance runners, the marathon used to be where you learned the most about yourself and your own limits. But the more races you enter and the longer distances you cover, the more you realize those preconceived limits may not really exist.
If the 1970s were one running boom, Mr. Simmons suggested that at least for a select few, this may be another. “How many marathons can someone do?” he asked. “We’re in this really cool moment where we’re trying to figure out what our bodies can do.”
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