SEATTLE -- Once the realm of elite runners with iron constitutions and a taste for pain, marathons have gone mainstream.
Training programs, nutrition, well-stocked events and the snowball effect of so many participants has turned the 26.2-mile run into a long jog for the masses.
In 2002, a record-setting 450,000 people completed a U.S. marathon. Of those, 40 percent were first-timers, said Ryan Lamppa, a researcher at U.S.A. Track & Field. Final statistics for 2003 aren't yet in, but Lamppa predicts a 3 percent increase, with even more marathon finishers expected for 2004.
"This growth in the marathon is a social phenomenon," he said, with at least 300 marathons a year nationwide.
Experts have honed their advice, enabling everyday people to train efficiently and with the confidence to finish a marathon.
People of all ages and shapes can get advice from books, the Web, even friends and co-workers.
"You are going to see any shape you can possibly imagine. You will see 300-pounders out there," said author and runner Jeff Galloway, who divides his time between Atlanta and Blue Mountain Beach, Fla. His writings include several popular running books, including "Marathon: You Can Do It!"
Mary Pat Gotschall, 33, of Seattle did her first marathon in April, having never run more than four miles before. Along with her husband and two friends, she ran the Marathon International de Paris, an event in which wine was offered to runners in the last several miles.
"When I saw the finish line, I started crying," she said. "I'm convinced now anybody can do it."
Gotschall's also part of a trend of more women marathoners. Lamppa said a record 40 percent of 2002 marathon finishers in the United States were women.
Forty years ago, marathons were a hardcore fringe event for men.
Galloway, 58, ran his first one in 1963 in Atlanta. Eleven people started, five finished.
"I was hurting for weeks," he said.
Since then, he's run 123 marathons and learned how to make it less painful and more enjoyable, collecting decades of feedback from runners and sharing his ideas in books and marathon clinics.
Erasing the idea that people have to run every step of the way has helped. He advocates frequent one-minute walk breaks because they allow for faster recovery, even faster course times.
"The walk breaks are the single ingredient over the past 45 years of my running experience that has signaled to average people that they really could experience success in training for something like a marathon, and still have a life," Galloway said.
Charities have added motivation and reaped the benefits.
People who run or walk marathons have raised more than $300 million for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society through its Team In Training program, said Jeanine Smith, national director of the program, which has local offices nationwide.
Begun in 1988, Team in Training offers coaching, clinics and support for runners who get pledges for the charity.
Many other charities have benefited as well, with money raised to fight cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's and arthritis. In the New York City Marathon last November, hip-hop mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs finished the race and raised $2 million for children.
Marathon courses have improved, too, with plenty of water stops, portable toilets - even live bands - almost every mile along the way.
"Any diversion helps when you're falling apart," said Tim Murphy, president of Elite Racing, which organizes Rock 'n' Roll marathons in San Diego and Phoenix and a Country Music Marathon in Nashville.
"It really has turned out to be a 26-mile party," he said.
Smart training helps, too.
Hal Higdon's self-named Web site offers 18-week training schedules for novices and veterans, honed by his experience from running 111 marathons. Higdon, 72, who lives near Chicago, recalls the days when marathon training was so rare that police in some neighborhoods would pull over runners, when a pre-race meal was steak and when marathon courses offered no water.
Nowadays, he said, "everybody's got somebody in the office who's done it."
Thirty-four-year-old Bill Brewster, who finished his first marathon in November in Seattle, said, "I think almost anybody could do this. It's just a question of where the starting point is."
Those who finish have a sense of satisfaction and ready conversation fodder.
"It's kind of the Holy Grail of running," said Patty Conway, a 45-year-old Seattle resident who used her cell phone to call family and friends for inspiration last November when she ran her first marathon in New York City.
When she crossed the finish line, Conway said, "I was bawling. I was so amazed I'd done it."
On the Net:
U.S.A. Track & Field: www.usatf.org