Running once had only two glamour events, the 100-yard dash, unofficial province of "the world's fastest human," and the mile, intriguing because of its four-minute barrier. To these add the marathon, which has moved into running's foreground.
This is not to say that marathons haven't always held a fascination. But in the past, marathoners and their race were viewed more as oddities than part of the mainstream. Now everyone's running marathons, or at least it seems that way.
This has placed the event's premier performers among the high priests of long distance running. The very fact that so many people can now relate to marathoning means they have a fuller appreciation for the achievements of a Bill Rodgers or Grete Waitz. In turn, these people have newfound commercial clout, because the shoes and clothing they wear influence sales.
Still, why has the marathon caught on so thoroughly with both plodders and world- class runners alike? Part of the reason is historical, since the race has its origin in ancient Greek legend, a messenger supposedly having run from Marathon to Athens to proclaim a victory over the Persians in 490 B.C.
That the race has a name makes it all the more distinguishable. Even if people don't know the exact distance (26 miles, 385 yards), they often have a better feel for a marathon than they might have for a "10K" (kilometer) or 5,000 -meter race.
Then, for top distance runners, there is the exposure marathons afford. They are frequently run on city streets, making them a tremendous showcase for otherwise unknown track athletes. Any event which can attract thousands of participants; simultaneously place superstars alongside Walter Mittys, and gain the privilege of stopping city traffic transcends being merely a sporting event. I t has become a spectacle. Therein lies marathoning's magic.