The value of the New York City marathon isn’t pace—it’s participation

The pace of progress.
The pace of progress.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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More than 60,000 runners are due to crowd the streets of New York City this Sunday for the world’s largest 26.2-mile race, but it’s a near certainty that not one will break Dennis Kimetto’s world record marathon time of 2:02:57, set five weeks ago in Berlin.

As Runner’s World explained at the time in an exhaustive analysis, beating the record has become less and less a feat of sheer human will and endurance, and more and more a game for technicians, trainers, medics, and quants. If a runner ever breaks the two-hour barrier, it will require being on the right course in the right weather conditions with the right physique and physiology. It will depend on having training and nutrition regimens and racing clothes designed with this one goal in mind.

The quest for the ultimate in optimization is destined to be repeated, not only across all sports, but across most other professions. As Kevin Kelly wrote this week in Wired, artificial intelligence now augments the powers of top chess players, and “it stands to reason that it can help us become better pilots, better doctors, better judges, better teachers.” The 21st century is going to be one in which machines enhance almost every aspect of human endeavor.

But there’s one thing they can’t touch. Even as marathons become less interesting as sporting achievements, they’re growing more important as social events. Marathons are democratic: The world’s oldest runner “retired” last year aged 102. And they are shows of community: A year after the Boston Marathon bombing, people ran in near-record numbers, and this year’s New York marathon will be the biggest in history.

Most people run to challenge themselves, to raise money for charity, to show solidarity—to do anything, in short, other than win. To a greater degree than perhaps in any other sport, in marathons it really is the taking part that counts.