Superhuman runner Dean Karnazes became serious about his sport on his thirtieth birthday. At that time in his life, he was feeling “no intensity, no sense of pain and struggle,” he recalls. “Everything was coming easy.” So during a party in his honor at a San Francisco bar, he left and decided to celebrate on his own: Karnazes ran a mile for every year he was alive. After completing his first 30 miles, he challenged himself to do even more. He soon completed a 200-mile race and would later run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days.

Why Marathons Are Becoming Increasingly Popular

While Karnazes’ experience is extreme, there are plenty of like minded people across the country who are dedicated to running races. In fact, the number of runners is at an all-time high: In 1976 an estimated 25,000 people in the United States finished a marathon. Last year, 518,000 did. And women are leading the charge: 30 years ago, 20 percent of marathon runners were women, but today women account for 55 percent of racers.

Why are so many people so eager to run those 26.2 miles? Karnazes, who has run hundreds of marathons around the world, has a theory.  

“In this tumultuous economy and the chain of world events, people are looking for something that has internal meaning beyond another material [object], something that is actually hard to achieve,” Karnazes says. “They’re seeking out challenges that are not easy. The rewards of doing so are all the greater.”

Anyone Who Is Committed Can Do It

“Principally, you prove that you’re better than you think you are and that you can go farther than you think you can,” he explains. “It's such an affirmation of the human body and the human spirit. I think it translates to other things in life. You can’t fake your way through a marathon. You’ve got to train, you’ve got to pay your dues, sacrifice, commit and be dedicated. Those lessons carry over into all elements of a life well-lived.”

Running USA researcher and media director Ryan Lamppa sees something more concrete that's helped get runners to participating in a marathon. “The main reason is the training programs,” he says. “It took that brand-new runner who, 30 years ago, didn’t know where to start or was intimidated by the sport and said, ‘It doesn't matter how fast, how slow or your body type. You can finish a marathon.’”

Of course, getting through such a fulfilling and enriching experience can come with its own set of risks. There are conflicting reports about running’s effects on the human body. A study published in the May 2012 issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine concluded there is a low risk of dying after marathons. But another study by St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute says running too many marathons could be harmful to the heart.

Ready to Train for a Marathon?

Preparing for that 26.2 mile run is arguably as tough as the race itself. Karnazes admits that the time commitment and the focus that are required to train have the potential to make a runner “somewhat obsessive.” The good news: Today many resources exist to help runners get through their training. Your doctor can help you decide if you are ready to pursue this big a challenge. There are many certified trainers who can help make sure you prepare for the run safely. If you need help making a plan of action, you can create a schedule like this one from the New York City Marathon, which requires runners to increase their mileage each week before tapering off as the race approaches. And Powerade, which is part of The Coca-Cola Company, provides a half-marathon training guide that includes a running plan and resistance workouts filled with squats, lunges, planks and stretches, and a hydration calculator app. Powerade also provided the hydration calculator to participants during the 2012 London Olympic Games and at the Athens Classic Marathon.

Powerade was an onsite sponsor of the Athens marathon.  “We’re proud to sponsor such an iconic marathon, which is now even further linked with environmental leadership,” says Coca-Cola communications manager Sofia Kilifi. With the Athens Classic Marathon, Kilifi notes, the company is able to support active lifestyles and environmental responsibility — showing its commitment to both.

What It Takes to Succeed

Karnazes' committment to running certainly isn't waning. Next year he plans to run a marathon in every country in the world.

“Life today is shades of gray — you think you know the rules, and they change,” he says. “With a marathon, there’s a starting line. Some great distance from there, there’s a finish line. In order to succeed, you reach the finish line. It’s black and white. You know what it takes to succeed.”