The oldest and most elite marathon in the country is Monday. You must hit a qualifying time to enter the Boston Marathon and an increasing number of runners are. This year, registration closed in just eight hours, three minutes.

Across the country, a record number of Americans are running marathons. That's actually a bit of a pain for the sport. Asma Khalid reports.

(Soundbite of running)

ASMA KHALID: Legend has it the Greek messenger Pheidippides ran 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens - and then collapsed and died. That was the original marathon. But what was once an act of rare heroism is now sort of common.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Twenty-five-year-old Rachel Couchenour is training for her first marathon - the Country Music Marathon in Nashville, Tennessee.

Ms. RACHEL COUCHENOUR: I only started running a little over a year ago. I couldn't even run for like, five minutes straight.

KHALID: After a sorority sister was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Couchenour decided to join the running group Team in Training. The organization raises money for disease research.

Today, Couchenour is running 20 miles. It's the longest distance she'll run before the marathon itself.

Ms. COUCHENOUR: I feel like the last six will be mainly mental, you know. I'm like, oh, what's another hour of running after this? Can't be too bad, right?

KHALID: That belief that anyone can complete a marathon is a mantra in running circles. And it seems almost everyone is. Last year, more than half a million Americans ran marathons - an all-time record. And that's partly because of groups like Team in Training.

Mr. RYAN LAMPA (Running USA): These training programs are the pipeline for this growth.

KHALID: Ryan Lampa is with the research group Running USA.

Mr. LAMPA: They can take that new runner from unfit to finish a marathon in 3-6 months. They opened up the sport to mainstream America.

Ms. COUCHENOUR: Chicken nuggets at the end, chicken nuggets at the end.

KHALID: Couchenour knows firsthand. She ends her training run crossing a chalk finish line and is awarded purple Mardi Gras beads and chicken nuggets.

Ms. COUCHENOUR: There's no way I could have ever done this on my own. Like, I wouldn't know about fueling myself during runs, I wouldn't know about any of that, or pacing. I feel like I would have just been going out blind.

KHALID: And probably never make it to the finish line, she says.

In addition to the record number of runners, these days there are a record number of marathon races - more than 625 last year alone. Take the Country Music Marathon Couchenour is running. The race features live local bands at every mile, and themed water stations. And as more novices like Couchenour start running...

Mr. TOM GRILK (Boston Athletic Association): They are drawn to go out and see how fast they can go.

KHALID: Tom Grilk heads the Boston Athletic Association. The group hosts the annual Boston Marathon.

Mr. GRILK: Then people get more excited about how fast they're going, and that's when we see them start aiming to qualify for Boston, as a kind of badge of accomplishment within the sport.

KHALID: Boston is the pinnacle of all marathons. Ben Beach is running his 44th consecutive Boston Marathon.

Mr. BEN BEACH (Runner): In the old days, we'd all gather in the junior high school gym out there.

KHALID: When Beach started, no women ran the race. He says he was one of maybe 1,000 runners - all men. Now, more than 40 percent of Boston's runners are women. Beach thinks all this marathon mania is healthy - a sign more people are thinking about fitness.

And while the folks who host the Boston Marathon are also happy more people are running, they worry that as mainstream American joins the race, amateurs will dilute Boston's prestige, especially if the fastest runners are locked out because they missed the sign-up.

So new rules: Starting next year, the folks with the fastest times can sign up first. That means not everyone who technically qualifies for Boston will get to run. There are just too many marathon runners.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

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