Walking in Marathons: Does it Disrespect the Race?

New York City MarathonImage by Pabo76 via Flickr

I recently read an article on the Well Blog of the New York Times titled “Better Running Through Walking.” The author, Tara Parker-Pope, is training to run the New York City Marathon in November and is chronicling her journey on the NYT website (see Run Well on the Well Blog here). Her article on Run-Walking basically outlines an approach to marathon running championed by running coach Jeff Galloway in his book “Marathon: You Can Do It.” The basic idea is that taking walk breaks throughout a marathon can ease the impact on the body and make it easier to finish without pounding yourself into the ground. The approach makes a lot of sense for newer runners or those who wish to reduce strain on the body during the race, and it is the approach the author plans to use when she runs NY.

The article in and of itself is not all that controversial – it’s the comments that followed it that really fired me up. Several posters felt the need to chime in and say that walking disrespects the dignity of the marathon (see comments 12, 13, 17, and 18 for examples), and that somehow those who walked during a marathon haven’t earned the right to say that they “ran a marathon.” The underlying implication is that walking “bastardizes” the marathon. I felt compelled to respond, and posted the following comment:

To those bashing people who walk during a marathon, I suggest you sit at the finish line and watch people coming in between 5 and 6 hours. Ask yourself if they are not pushing themselves to the limit. Ask yourself if they are not in pain. Sure, some have not put in the ideal amount of training, but many have, and are doing something that is an incredible accomplishment for their level of fitness. I respect anyone who finishes a marathon, whether they run, walk, or crawl.

On another note – look at Ultramarathoners. They run a longer distance than the marathon, and walking is normal for parts of the race in all but the most elite. Being able to “run” an entire marathon is an accomplishment to be sure, but lets not take away from those who are challenging themselves to reach what many think is an impossible goal.

I truly believe that anyone who puts in the effort to traverse 26.2 miles on foot is deserving of the title of “marathoner,” regardless of how they covered that distance. If you cross that finish line at the end of a marathon, you have accomplished something that less than 1% of people on this planet have accomplished, and it doesn’t matter how long it took. It irritates me that some “purists” feel the need to take away from the accomplishments of others with snide comments, and it’s a shame that they can’t simply respect those for whom completing a marathon is monumental undertaking requiring dedication and physical effort beyond anything they have ever done before.

What do you think? Does walking in a marathon diminish the accomplishment or is it just an additional method to achieve the goal of finishing the race?

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. Being a back of the pack runner (although am looking at doing speed work and hills to maybe change that up), I always think about the folks finishing behind me.  Heck, we KNOW we’re not fast or good at this running thing, but we’ve set a goal, and damnit, have decided to suck it up and get through it.  It’s a beautiful thing indeed to watch those who run like gazelles and to applaud their natural abilities and commitment to training.  It’s a whole other world a couple hours later where pure guts and willpower are what’s driving people to keep picking their feet up and putting them down again.  All runners share that attitude because everyone knows that feeling.  That’s our common ground – to see this thing through to the end.  That effort and commitment is not something to be dismissed.

  2. patrick voo says:

    all i can say is that i’ve consistently improved my PR in the marathon, from 4:04 to 3:24 to 3:18. it was only the 4:04 race that i tried not to walk, and was forced to at 33km. the other two races have all had walking components to them, and the last one was only 3 min. off of a BQ. i’m convinced that walking stretches out the leg muscles in different ways than the running stride does, and actually improves my ability to go further, stronger, and faster.

  3. A. Rockett Kirwin says:

    I agree completely agree that walking is not only acceptable, it’s advisable in certain race situations and conditions. There’s an ultra running saying that goes, “When you can’t see the top–walk!”. What kind of ding-a-ling thinks that a person has to constantly run during a marathon or that walking “disrespects it”? Someone who is kind of immature and who apparently hasn’t raced an ultra–which is longer than a mere 26.2 mile marathon. Also, someone who doesn’t speak proper English, either. There ya go…I just added a bit more fuel to that fire for ya.

  4. innovatel says:

    I did only one marathon and finish her in 3h33 and I think it’s a good time. I think it’s not a marathon if I walking … but many people don t think it :( If a people walk because have problem it’s ok … but start and finish in “only walking style” it’s not good :(

  5. WiiFatMarathonDotCom says:

    Before answering this question, you must first answer this question: Whose yardstick do you measure yourself by? I’m sure there are people who look at my barely sub-six hour performances with disgust … but that’s THEIR problem, not mine. Each marathon is a race against myself, not others.

    Six months ago, I couldn’t walk 50 yards from my car to my office without being out of breath. Now, I can run/walk 26.2 miles. How could I NOT look at that as a tremendous victory? Every race, I’m certain to beat one thing … my old sedentary lifestyle.

    If you’re an insecure marathon “runner”, I’m sure that you feel that marathon “walkers” somehow lessen your achievements, rather than share in your accomplishments. Do these people feel the same way about wheelchair marathoners? Just do the best with what you’ve got. I’ve got a body that has finally overcome obesity but is still overweight. I’d like to see a three-hour marathoner run with sixty pounds of “cargo” … I assure you it will slow them down quite a bit. For my weight, I’m fairly fast.

    American “runners” should look around them and see the sorry state of their fellow countrymen. Then, they should congratulate those that are making an effort to overcome inactivity and obesity. Thankfully, my personal experiences have been mostly positive.

    One of by favorite quotes is by John “The Penguin” Bingham: “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”.

    • Sue Yaw Kappler says:

      So, so true.  I’ve often felt that the runners at the “back of the pack” are the ones who need the kudos and encouragement.  It’s a different kind of run to know you’re going to be out there for 5 plus hours when the fast runners have long finished, showered and eaten.  It takes guts to keep slogging along when the crowds are thinning and you’re questioning your sanity.  But we all share the fact that we are out there doing it.  Some of the most gracious runners are those I’ve seen who head back down the finish to encourage those behind them.  It is then that I realize that we truly can be a community of individuals who support each other wherever we are at in this sport.  We were not all blessed with a life-long interest or inherited abilities.  Each of us has to work with what we’ve got and our own determination to see something through to the end.  That’s the same across the board.  Left foot, right foot . . .  

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks for your comments – I agree with you 100%. Congrats on becoming a marathoner!

  6. I have ran several marathons. At first I felt I must run the whole thing. I was running mid 4s. A buddy told me about the Callaway method. I dropped a good 20 min on the same course. Raceing is about going as fast as you can. I can go faster by taking a one min break every mile.

  7. Although I disagree or I guess find the notion odd of a very well trained competative marathoner being able to put up better race times by walking certainly there is nothing wrong with walking some if that is your fitness level. As for the purist who the heck are they anyway? It says more about them then it does the “walkers”. Last time I looked the race rules of a marathon were you cover the entire distance within the time that the course is open as fast as you can.

    Just wondering but if I have to stop to tie my shoe does this mean I am not allowed to finish under the purists rules

  8. I do not have a race license so i don’t race a marathon. I do something else.. I cross large distances on foot the way man has run large distances on foot since the beginning of man’s existence. If Phidipides would have “run” the original “race” to marathon, he would most certainly have taken walk breaks (although it is way more likely he took a horse).

  9. congrats on yr approach & comments.
    ira R. (26.2 @ 4:15)

  10. 26.2 is 26.2 no matter how the distance is covered. I would hope those who criticized anyone who walks will back track on those comments the next time their hamstrings lock up on the 22nd mile or have an unexpected bowel movement on mile 24. Sometimes a little walk is required. I would say it is disrespectful to take the distance for granted. Worry about your own reasons for running and respect the reasons of others.

  11. Prodvegas says:

    Without a doubt walking in a Marathon unless injured is not only cheating the race but more importantly yourself !, i cringe when i see a runner/walker cross the line in euphoria as though walking part of the course or in some cases all of it is some kind of achievement.
    Fair play if cramp or some other unexpected injury reduces you to a walk, but other than that there can be no excuse.

    These is not open for debate its clear cut don’t enter a Marathon if your going to walk .

  12. Jackie Dove says:

    Ah, you know it was that attitude that made me hate people who were healthy and athletes.

    I was obese from childhood and after the birth of my first child, I lost 105 pounds. And, at 5’2′, that’s A LOT. I responded by getting a MS in Exercise Science and literally had anxiety attacks around my classmates for the first year because healthy people freaked me out. With a PhD under my belt, and my anxiety issues resolved, I feel more empowered to speak up for those of us who have struggled. Like I told my adolescents in my weight loss study, “I’d rather be around an overweight person who is nice and moving towards healing than a jerk who’s “healthy” and is a poisonous presence”.
    As a newbie runner trying to shed the last 30 pounds from my recent pregnancy, I proudly use the Galloway method which just saw me through my second half-marathon.
    At least we can lose weight, and prevent injury. Those people may be jerks for life.

  13. I use walking breaks since couple of years now and actually I am improving my PB. I start my walk breaks from the begining and it turn out that after a half of a distance I mostly passing people. I pass “run-only” people at the end of the run, but somehow they are ok because there run the whole thing just hit the wall and that is cool but I am a whimp because I did those stupid walk breaks all the time and maintain an even pace. As far as I know winner is the one how goes thru the distance the fastest. There are no points for style and “coolnest” ;)

  14. I mention walking in a marathon in the Hartford marathon post. we are all different. I power walk through drink stations so i can make sure the drink actually gets in me and not all over the place. a personal preference is to keep running as this keeps my concentration and in my personal ‘zone’. To say walking disrespects a marathon is ridiculous. each to their own, and to complete a marathon, period, is a fantastic accomplishment and puts you in a very very small minority of the worlds population. If a walk break will help get to that finish line, then so be it. “Disrespects”!!?? pahh! bloody nonsense!!

  15. Broussca says:

    I walk marathons in 5-6 hours and beat many of the runners (some of the same ones that complain about walkers being allowed into marathons…what another poster called the “insecure runners”). The faster runners could care less about walkers or slower runners. In fact, they are much kinder to walkers (in loop marathons where I see the fast runners looping back) than slow runners. I’ve learned to ignore them. 

  16. Al Kavadlo says:

    I just did my first marathon this past Sunday (NYC). I took walking breaks at a couple of the fluid stations and I feel no shame in that. I feel like it was still the greatest physical accomplishment of my life!

    I do, however, think that it’s usually best for non-runners to ease into racing by starting with shorter distances before embarking towards a marathon.

    • Pete Larson says:

      We’re on the same page with the walking issue – I have walked in all 4 of
      mine, though someday I would like to be able to do it without having to
      walk! Long term goal I guess. -Pete

  17. PortlandRunner2 says:

    I respect all contestants in marathons with the exception of a few walkers who insist on starting near the competitive racers. These walkers basically make a wall that causes runners to trip over each other as they try to go around them. If you are going to walk a marathon, please start near the back. Other than that, good for you.

  18. Melanie says:

    I have to agree with you, Peter. Maybe it’s because I’m a novice or maybe because I feel that running is an individual sport so how is it anyone else’s business how another person is running/walking/crawling the race? As long as the walker or slower runner is polite and stays out of the way of the faster ones, I say shut it and run period. Some people take things way too seriously.

  19. I just think the people that run around boasting about “running” a marathon are what annoys me. You didn’t run it so don’t say you did. Say you completed a marathon – saying otherwise is like lying about your time and waters down the efforts of those that actually do run it. Why not do a shorter distance that you can actually run? I’m not saying you can’t take a break for fluids etc as I think you would have to be world class to not take a break (as in pull over) but I see gobs of people just flat out walking it like its a walkathon.

    • Well Stella I have done shorter distances.
      I ran my first 5K almost 1 year ago. I had to run/walk my first two 5Ks. But I’ve have run 4 others in there entirety now. I’ve also done two 10Ks and run them both in their entirety.
      18 months ago (Nov 2012) I weighed 424.4 pounds, and 2 weeks ago at the age of 51 I ran my first-ever half marathon. I ran 15 minutes then walked for 3 and it took me 3 hrs and 8 minutes to complete. The winner ran it in 1 hour and 7 minutes. But I don’t believe he worked any harder than I did, he didn’t accomplish any more than I did, and he didn’t feel any more incredible than I did when he finished. And I doubt any of his friends or family was happier for him then mine were for me at the end. So now my next challenge is a full marathon. In Oct I plan on running a FULL marathon (Baltimore). If I’m successful (and I will run/walk it) I will go from 424.4 pounds to 26.2 miles in just under 2 years. Anyone who wants to look down at the fact that I am going to walk a portion of it, I say, “that’s fine!” I don’t need (nor want) your approval.

      • Rock on Ken! Fantastic job on the weight loss and race progression, and good luck in the marathon. As someone who coaches beginner 5K runners, I totally agree with you – do whatever it takes to get across that finish line. If it means walking, crawling, etc., so be it. Finishing is all that matters.

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