Are marathon walkers actually athletes?

In July of last year, at the age of 41, I completed my first marathon and fulfilled one of my life goals/dreams. My intention was to run the event, but my version of a run is more like a jog and at a 13-min and up mile pace, many walkers out-pace me. I held my steady jog for the first half, then probably half-walked, half-jogged for the last half. My big claim to fame these days is that I finished my marathon 5 minutes faster than Al Roker completed the New York City Marathon.  There are those out there who would claim that neither Al or I are true marathoners.

I stumbled across this defense of the marathon walker on active.com. The author notes:

  • She trained herself to walk a 12:30 minute mile and IMO could clearly hold her own with plenty of joggers
  • In the two events she completed, the “true” runners complained that the walkers “ruined” the event for them
  • Endurance events like running, walking, and jogging are personal sports and as long as we all follow the rules, she wondered why shouldn’t walkers be able to participate?

Her post was, in her words, a rant. The idea that my measly 7-hour marathon was simply some bucket-list item to be checked off and not a real athletic event in some people’s eyes does make me a little angry, but mostly it makes me sad. Completing a marathon literally changed my life. It proved to me I could accomplish  absolutely any goal I put in front of myself as long as I was willing to let go of my preconceived notions of how I would get there. I sacrificed my time, pounding the pavement during hours of  training (and, by the way, I spent more time on my feet in training than the faster runner). I sacrificed my body, including a hip injury that took months to heal and almost prevented me from participating. Are those not the same sacrifices a faster runner makes? Does that not make me an athlete??

When I meet someone who has finished a marathon, I get excited because now we have something in common and I love swapping stories about our experiences. I tend to find these experiences are more similar than different. We all hit our own brick walls, we all fight off injury, we all have our own disappointments, and we all feel that surge of pure joy as we step across the finish line – whether it is our first or fiftieth event.  How does the fact that one of us finished in half the time of the other change what we both shared in our 26.2 mile journeys?

I consulted Merriam-Webster for their definition of athlete

a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina

It doesn’t say anything there about a person who “ran a marathon in under 4 hours.” I trained, I exercised my jogging skills, I applied 7 hours of stamina. Does that not make me an athlete? Well, it does for me, and for all those purist athletes who wish to diminish my participation as less than athletic, I have another label for you – poor sport.

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For the non-elite athlete in every one of you, please consider a $26 donation to Team in Training. They help regular people like you and me fulfill our dreams. Besides, the more support we give them, the more of us there are at these events to drive the purists crazy!

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One Comment on “Are marathon walkers actually athletes?”

  1. Mona Pinon says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this, I am currently training for a 33 mile walk and I feel people don’t understand how hard it is. I decided to make this walk to raise awareness for the need of accessible playgrounds in our schools and parks and hopefully raise the rest of the money needed to complete Phase 2 of the Blue Slide Project. . I will be walking from one accessible playground in Medford, OR to the Blue Slide Project in Grants Pass, OR.


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