Lessons From a Loser

Of all the cardinal sins a runner can commit, the greatest is claiming to run a marathon when you really haven’t. The commandment is clear: Thou shalt not call thyself a marathoner if Thou hast not covered the entire 26.2 miles.

Dane Patterson, a contestant on this season’s Biggest Loser, learned that lesson the hard way last month, and incurred not only the wrath of God, but of thousands of angry marathoners. His is a cautionary tale that highlights a couple of vital lessons for novice runners.

First, some background. After being voted off of the show’s Feb 25th episode, the follow-up piece showed Patterson running a marathon in Arizona. Viewers saw him cross the finish line, and wear a finisher’s medal as the crowd cheered him. Meanwhile, a caption reported that he completed the race in 3 hours, 53 minutes, and Patterson’s voiceover described it as “the most amazing experience of my life to run an entire marathon.”

It was a great story, except for one problem: he didn’t actually do the whole marathon.

Patterson entered the marathon and ran about 17 miles before NBC producers realized that he wouldn’t make the finish line before the race finished and the sun went down. Somewhere around mile 23, Patterson agreed to ride the NBC van to the finish, where he was filmed crossing the line victoriously.

Like other scoundrels of the information age, Patterson’s undoing came via the Internet. Two runners reported on their personal blogs that they saw Patterson and his wife get out of the van just before the finish line. Mainstream media picked up the story, and NBC was soon apologizing for creating a staged accomplishment.

After the controversy broke, Patterson reasserted that he only rode for 3 miles in the van - but to anybody who has ever run a marathon, it didn’t matter. He became a lightning rod for an angry mob of runners accusing him of the highest form of treason.

The whole fiasco raises two interesting points – the first of which is that almost everybody is trying to do a marathon these days.

Twenty years ago, new runners targeted 10K races as incentives to get in shape; today, the marathon is an entry-level race. Training programs (many of which are fundraisers) promise to turn sedentary people into marathoners in a period of weeks. 10Ks and half-marathons aren’t impressive enough anymore; everyone is reaching for the brass ring right out of the gate.

While the notion is admirable, this isn’t always a good thing in practice. The injury risk for a novice runner starting a marathon program is quite high – and many of those who do complete the race find the process so dreadful that they never return to it.

Which brings us to the second lesson from Patterson’s story: the importance of setting manageable goals.

A new runner would probably benefit more by building up to the marathon challenge slowly, after successfully completing shorter distances over a longer period of time. Your chance of long-term success is much greater, which should be the primary reason you start running in the first place. Besides, it’s not like marathons are going away anytime soon – your goal race will still be there for you to tackle when you’re properly prepared.

We’re glad Dane Patterson was able to run 23 miles last month. He is trying another marathon in April, and we sincerely wish him the best of luck in finishing it. Above all else, we wish him the many years of health and happiness that dedicated runners have come to enjoy.

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