Marathon Miles Are the New Status Symbol

When it comes to keeping up with the Joneses, fitness has replaced cars, cash and private schools

It never ceases to amaze me the things you hear riding an elevator. “What are you up to?” one man, whom I guessed to be somewhere in his mid-50s (maybe even 60) asked his colleague, a nattily dressed executive in his 40s, one day last week as we progressed up to their stop on the 30th floor.

“Nineteen,” the man replied. “You?”

“Did 21 over the weekend,” the older man said. “Didn’t want to push it too much. But it was nice weather.”

It took me another few seconds of eavesdropping—sorry, occupational hazard—to figure out they were talking about running. Like, marathon running. A man close to retirement age was talking to another man my age comparing running 21 miles to 19 miles. I shook my head, silently thankful I hadn’t succumbed to that impulse on the way back to the office to buy a chocolate-chip cookie. Running 21 miles? At once? I have a hard time driving 21 miles at once.

And yet this is all you hear anymore. It’s no longer enough to say you’ve run a marathon; now, it’s how many you’ve run. People go bike shopping with the discerning eye they use to buy a new house. Tales of dining out no longer center on whether the food was any good, but how easily you resisted dipping into the bread basket. And dessert? What’s that?

Philadelphia has long been derided for, well, its abundance of fat people. And as someone who has regularly struggled with weight (I swear I turned 30 and it all went to hell), I absolutely applaud trying to living healthy (or at least health-ier) in the capital of both the cheesesteak and the designer comfort-food restaurant. But if I have to suffer through one more incident where someone looks at what I am eating and then proceeds to dissect every calorie and gram of fat as they tsk-tsk their way through it, I am going to hit them. Hard.

Nationally, we have been getting better about diet and exercise. According to the Centers for Disease Control, regular exercise among women increased 8.6 percent between 2001 and 2007; for men, the increase was a smaller but still appreciable 3.5 percent. The number of gyms and fitness centers in this country shot up more than 20 percent between 2002 and 2007. Feel the burn!

And yet, I don’t want to. I exercise (mainly swimming and that f#$*! elliptical machine) not because I can’t wait to fire up the iPod but because I have to, in order to keep my 48-year-old body in some semblance of working order. If I make it to the gym twice in a week I consider it a personal triumph. But I find myself increasingly in the company of The Running Dead, the Lycra-clad workout zombies whose lives seem, to a disturbing degree, to revolve around how much food, oxygen and pleasure deprivation they can endure in any given week. If you don’t believe me, go take a class at Lithe Method one day. Police interrogations of serial killers are less intense.

It’s got me thinking: Is exercise the new money? I can remember a day not that long ago when showing off your material wealth was how you evaluated yourself up against your peers: how new and sporty your car was compared to theirs, the size of your house, the grandeur of your vacation, the price and exclusivity of your kid’s school. But in these lean (ha!) times, too many people don’t have any wealth to compare, and the people who do have it seem to have developed some latent sense that this might not be the ideal time to be flaunting it. Which may explain how fitness has become the new currency. Rich or poor, employed or not, comparing the marathon mileage or number of bike-a-thon badges one has accrued has the ring of egalitarianism, since we all have equal opportunity to lace up and take off. Where the haves and the have-nots were once delineated by zip codes, we’re now set apart by how long it takes you to run through one.

Is it worth it? I suppose perhaps it is. It’s always better to be fit than not, and it certainly does wonders for your self-esteem, a feat not to be underestimated in an age where we seem to all have so little control over what happens in the rest of our lives anymore. (Job security? Right.) But I can’t help but wish it could all be dialed back a notch, where the idea of having a root-beer float isn’t treated as a treasonous act worthy of both disdain and pity by those on their way out for their 15-mile run and the protein shake that surely follows.

I don’t know. Life is short, people. And as sacrilegious as it may be to say so, sometimes a doughnut just makes it feel better.