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Endurance Gap: Why Aren't Marathons More Popular in Hiking?


Wooden docks and a small building sit on the water of a lake under cloudy skies with sunshine rays streaming through the clouds in Long Hunter State Park in Tennessee
Couchville Lake at Long Hunter State Park before the 2023 Mega-Hike

When you hear "marathon," you probably think of running. But why?


Over the past few years, I’ve been wondering why the marathon mentality is so attached to the running world. Why hasn’t it spread to the hiking community? The sport of hiking has a well-established tradition of endurance but mainly on the extreme end of the scale. Hikers who wish to push themselves can thru-hike one of our nation's storied long treks, scale a peak, or embark on a multi-day adventure. But what about those hikers who don't have the time for an extended trip or any nearby peaks but still want to take their hiking to the next level? 


Today, I’d like to explore possible explanations for this gap. I’m not arguing that there need to be more hiking marathons or that one approach is better than another. I’m just curious as to why marathons aren’t as popular in hiking as they are in running. 


To help me learn about this difference, I talked to Wesley Trimble who proposed several explanations. When I spoke to him, he was the Communications and Creative Director at the American Hiking Society


First, he pointed out that hiking isn’t always a completely separate endeavor from running. (1) Some sports, like rucking where participants walk while carrying packs and orienteering where participants run while navigating with a map and compass, can blur the line between hiking and running. (2) He noted that some people may choose to both run and hike on one course. (3)


Trimble also noted that this marathon gap might come down to terminology. (4) There are a lot of hiking events, but they might be described differently. There are hike-athons and hiking challenges; while they might be close in length to a marathon, they simply aren’t called that. (5) 


This is certainly the case for Long Hunter State Park’s Mega-Hike. Participants in the Mega-Hike hike about 26 miles in one day, but it’s not publicized as a marathon. (6) 


Hikers are stretched out along a dirt path strewn with leaves surrounded by green trees in Long Hunter State Park in Tennessee
Hikers participating in the 2023 Long Hunter Mega-Hike

Hikers may have different reasons for engaging in their sport that mean they don’t want to travel a marathon’s length in one session. Trimble noted that often hike-athons or hiking challenges have a fundraising or community engagement focus rather than a focus on competition. (7) He also explained that hikers might prefer to hike by themselves or with family or friends rather than join a crowded event. (8)


He knows that he has different hiking goals in different situations. Hiking with his family is a different experience than hiking to prepare himself for an event or challenge himself. Even if he is hiking by himself, sometimes his goal is just to relax. (9)


Diane Spicer is a lifelong hiker and host of “Hiking For Her,” a website for female hikers. For her, hiking is about exploration rather than mileage. She explained, “I have never had the mentality of a thru-hiker. I’m what I call an ‘immersion’ hiker. If I backpack, I plunk down in a base camp and explore an area for several days before moving on.” (10) 


The fact that hikers have various reasons for enjoying the sport may go a long way to explaining why marathons aren’t as popular in the hiking world. After all, 5Ks and 10Ks and other standard running distances aren’t as popular in the hiking world either so it doesn’t seem to just be about the sheer length of a 26-mile hike. (Of course, there’s always an exception - in January, Rocky Fork State Park held a “Winter 5K Hike.” It sold out. (11)) 


And it’s not unusual for hikers to trek 3.1 miles (the length of a 5K) in one outing (12); they just don’t usually label their hike a 5K. So perhaps the clue is in the name given to the endeavor; by labeling something a 5K, the organizer indicates that the distance covered is the most important aspect of the event. Would a hike labeled a “hike-a-thon” draw the same people as one labeled a “5K race?” What’s in a name?


Trimble also wondered if logistics could be a reason marathons are more associated with running. Training for a hiking marathon might not be feasible for many people. Since hiking 26.2 miles would take substantially longer than running that distance, someone training for a hiking marathon might have to spend eight or more hours training in one session. (13) Also, it might be more challenging to measure exactly 26.2 miles on hiking trails as opposed to roadways. (14)


Dr. Peter Brubaker, Chair of the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Wake Forest University, had another hypothesis for the lack of marathons in hiking. (15) He wondered if this is because some might not think hiking is as difficult as running. Perhaps some people think that because you are moving more slowly and can take breaks anytime, it’s not as demanding as running. (16) But he warned that this belief can be risky since it might cause people not to prepare as thoroughly for a hike as they would for a run. (17)


Dr. Brubaker has had firsthand experience with this danger. Even though he has completed around 40 marathons and about a third of them were on trails (18), the closest he has ever been to serious physical harm during a physical activity was on a hike. (19)


During a trip to the Grand Canyon, he and his wife, who also was a marathon runner, decided to hike down the Canyon to the bottom. (20) They planned to connect with another trail and hike back up to the Canyon’s rim. They didn’t bring much water because they didn’t think they would be hiking long and knew they could refill their bottles on the trail back up to the top. But when they arrived at the Canyon’s bottom, they couldn’t find the connecting trail and decided to turn around and ascend to the top on the trail they had just trekked. Their return trip took them twice as long as their descent, and that trail didn’t have any water refill stations. They ran out of water and became very overheated. They became extremely worried about their ability to make it back alive. But, thankfully, they did make it to the top. (21)


Dr. Brubaker recounted this story to highlight the dangers of not preparing thoroughly for a hike, and he worried that some planning to hike a marathon would fall into the same trap. (22) He advised that anyone attempting to hike a marathon prepare as thoroughly as they would if they were running a marathon on the road. (23) And because hiking a marathon will take significantly longer than running one, he stressed that it’s essential for hikers to ensure that they can fuel and hydrate themselves properly for the entire trek. (24) Since marathon hikers will be exposed to the elements for much longer, they must also plan to adequately protect themselves for any weather they will experience. (25)


If you’re planning on participating in Long Hunter’s Mega-Hike this fall, I hope you heed Dr. Brubaker’s advice. Maybe I’ll see you out there!

 
  1. Interview with Wesley Trimble, 7/20/21; 02:36.

  2. Id.; https://www.goruck.com/pages/what-is-rucking ; https://orienteeringusa.org/about/rules/ 

  3. Trimble interview at 03:36.

  4. Trimble interview at 00:19. 

  5. Trimble interview at 00:36. 

  6. https://tn-nature.blogspot.com/ 

  7. Trimble interview at 01:07.

  8. Trimble interview at 06:33. 

  9. Trimble interview at 09:09. 

  10. Email from Diane Spicer on April 29, 2021. 

  11. Screenshot of activity announcement from Tennessee State Parks website.

  12. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/5k-run/art-20050962 

  13. Trimble interview at 07:47. 

  14. Trimble interview at 00:45. 

  15. https://hes.wfu.edu/profile-page/?user=2 

  16. Interview with Dr. Peter Brubaker, 8/3/21; 24:13.

  17. Brubaker interview at 06:16 and 24:50.

  18. Brubaker interview at 19:23.

  19. Brubaker interview at 29:14. 

  20. Brubaker interview at 25:19.

  21. Brubaker interview at 25:58 and 30:12. 

  22. Brubaker interview at 27:58 and 28:42.

  23. Brubaker interview at 27:58 and 32:11.

  24. Brubaker interview at 10:38.

  25. Brubaker interview at 12:38 and 31:28.


4/15/24

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