Inside the Bizarre World of Indoor Marathons
This weekend in New York City, a group of runners braved 211 laps around the track in pursuit of a niche world record
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“I’m not trying to insult anybody, but I feel like this is an event for running geeks,” said Amelia Bourdeau, a recreational runner who, on Saturday, was sitting in street clothes in the balcony-level stands of the six-lane indoor track and field facility in New York City, known locally as the Armory.
Below, seven runners—five men and two women—were in the process of running 211 laps in an attempt to break the indoor marathon world record. Christopher Zablocki, who set the men’s mark of 2:21:48 at this event last year and was recently profiled in the New York Times, was back to defend his title. From the looks of it, however, he had some work to do; with less than a third of the race to go, Zablocki’s rival Malcolm Richards had already twice lapped the rest of the men’s field and was showing no sign of slowing down. Richards had set the world record at the inaugural Indoor Marathon World Record Challenge, in 2016, and seemed bent on regaining his title.
“Malcolm has a two-and-a-half lap lead now. That’s only 500 meters!” a race announcer said over the loudspeaker, in an apparent bid to reinject a little drama.
Bourdeau had been aware of the fringe universe of indoor marathoning for about a year, having heard of it through her running club. (The event at the Armory isn’t the only one of its kind, though it is the most competitive one. In January, for instance, 41 people took part in Minnesota’s Zoom! Yah! Yah! Indoor Marathon.) By chance, she saw the Times article on Zablocki and decided to check out what an indoor marathon looks like.
“It’s so untraditional. That’s what I love about it,” she said. “A marathon covered like a track meet, it’s kind of funny.”
An indoor track marathon is not going to be everyone’s idea of scintillating entertainment. For a live audience, however, it does offer some significant advantages over watching a road marathon outside. Inside, you can see the entire race unfold, rather than only glimpsing runners for a few seconds as they whiz by. A more confined venue also allows for more statistical feedback. Even when you watch a road marathon on TV, runner splits are revealed only every couple miles. At the Armory, screens displayed runner splits for every lap.
Despite such perks, and free admission for the general public, the stands at the third annual edition of the Indoor Marathon World Record Challenge were not overcrowded. The balcony at the Armory has a seating capacity of 2,736, and I’d showed up with the intention of interviewing a few spectators. When I arrived, I counted eight people.
“I thought there’d be a few more people here. We were ready to pay entrance,” said Pat Armstrong, another person who had no trouble finding a seat in the balcony section. She was here with her husband, John, who was taking part in an eight-person indoor marathon relay the next day.
We watched as Richards, a U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon and elementary school teacher in San Francisco, clicked off yet another sub-40-second lap. He was averaging about 5:18 per mile. “I won’t be running any 40-second laps tomorrow,” John said.
If you think running 211 laps around a 200-meter oval sounds more like a punishment from Hades than something people would do of their own volition, I can assure you that the organizers of the event have taken preemptive measures to break up the monotony. For instance: After running clockwise for the first hour, competitors do a U-turn around a set of cones and head in the opposite direction for the rest of the race. Since the “course” is on a banked track, the idea is that this will even out any potential strain on the hips.
The balcony at the Armory has a seating capacity of 2,736, and I’d showed up with the intention of interviewing a few spectators. When I arrived, I counted eight people.
More important, there’s also music. In the lead-up to the marathon, participants were asked to submit song requests. Sample tracks from the day’s soundtrack included: “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” “Rebel Yell,” “Simply the Best,” and the requisite “Eye of the Tiger.” Of course, even in the niche category of indoor marathon running, what qualifies as monotonous might be a matter of perspective.
“Our son actually holds the world record for running a marathon on a treadmill,” said Jim Blake, who was sitting in the balcony with his wife, Priscilla. The son in question is Eric Blake, who is the head coach for track and cross-country at Central Connecticut State University and was participating in the World Indoor Marathon Challenge for the second year in a row. Eric’s wife, Anne, was also in attendance but had ventured down to support her husband trackside for the final portion of the race.
In the end, Richards’ lead proved insurmountable. He finished in 2:19:01, thereby reclaiming the indoor marathon world record. On the women’s side, Lindsey Scherf, a wearable-tech consultant who set (and still holds) the American junior record in the 10,000 meters in 2005, was equally impressive; her time of 2:40:55 was also good enough for a new world record. Neither Richards nor Scherf opted to run a victory lap.
After he’d posed for a few photos, I asked Richards how running a marathon indoors compared with the outdoor equivalent. “I have to turn my mind off more than I would in a road marathon, where I’m constantly in tune with various things going on,” Richards said. “Here, I’m trying to tune out for a while.” For him, the soundtrack element was a necessity of indoor marathoning. “It’s funny, because I’m anti-headphones. I never listen to music during a run. And yet I come here and I’m like, if there was no music, I don’t know if I could do it.”
Asked if he was planning on doing this event again next year, Richards’ answer was a little ambiguous. “I can’t say no, definitively, right now. We’ll see what happens,” he said.
Scherf, on the other hand, was more enthusiastic. “It’s way more fun than you would expect!” she said when I caught up with her post-race. “You’d think it would be horrible, but having the music and also having more feedback than you’d ever need per lap means that you can zone out as much as you want and then zone in as soon as you feel like it.”
The abundance of feedback appeared to work well for her. After the race, I checked out her split times on a screen next to the track. She’d run her first lap in 45 seconds and her 211th in 46. Her average lap time was 45.7 seconds per lap.
And lest you should be tempted to think that the world’s best indoor marathoners might not be able to cut it in a more conventional competition, it’s worth noting that every runner who took part in the Indoor Marathon World Record Challenge is an elite-level athlete. Lindsey Scherf finished second at the prestigious Grandma’s Marathon in 2015, running 2:32:19—her best time to date. (Since an indoor track requires runners to run tighter turns, it’s generally true that race times are slower than they would be outside.) In just two weeks, she’ll be making her ultra debut at the 35-mile Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town, South Africa. Meanwhile, Eric Blake (Mr. Treadmill) is “more of a mountain guy,” as his father put it. Among other triumphs, Blake won the Zermatt Marathon in Switzerland last summer. Talk about straddling two extremes of the marathoning spectrum.
As for the defending champion, Zablocki had a rough go of it. He finished last among the men and was visibly struggling throughout much of the second half the race. His time of 2:29:13 was more than seven minutes slower than last year. As he explained it to me when I found him leaning against the trackside railing afterward, he’d recently strained his Achilles while training in a blizzard. (Note to self.)
Nevertheless, the now former world record holder was sanguine in defeat, despite getting lapped by guys he usually tries to beat. “You just have to remember to enjoy it when you have a good day, because sometimes you’re going to have a bad day,” Zablocki said.