According to the OED, -athon is "a combining form, barbarously extracted f. MAR)ATHON, used occas. in the U.S. (talkathon, walkathon), rarely in Britain, to form words denoting something carried on for an abnormal length of time."
The most awesome part of this entry is the part that reads "rarely in Britian." The subtext mutters, "those Americans are really the only ones who 'carry on.'"
I have taken part in only one 'official' -athon--this when I was 10 or 11. It was called a "rockathon," and it involved rocking in a rocking chair until I could rock no more. (Yes, in other parts of the country a rockathon might mean something way more exciting, but hey.) It turns out that a rockathon is a brilliant stroke for those who want the things to end already, because the rockers all rock themselves to sleep with remarkable speed. I didn't last more than a few hours myself.
Penn State is famous for its dance-a-thon, a.k.a. THON, where students dance themselves into a frenzy for a whole weekend and are only allowed a minimal number of timed bathroom breaks and food breaks.
For the last couple days, though, I have conducted my own little write-athon. I came up to Chicago with my laptop and five Burke articles that are forming the center of my chapter, bought some food, and basically stayed in the apartment to write all day yesterday and the entire morning today. With the exception of a bike ride along the lake during which I was arguably still writing (I hit on a couple of useful categories), and of course excepting sleep, oh, and a beer- and scotch-tasting break with M from UIC, I've pretty much just been writing and writing. My chapter draft is ten single-spaced pages and 5,000 words longer than it was when I arrived, and more importantly, it's finish-ready, which is to say I have extensive notes about the parts I need to finish to fill this thing out. The writing has finally--finally--reached the point where it has taken over.
Burke himself writes about this moment in writing--the moment when, as he puts it, a "work reaches the fatal point at which it 'begins to write itself,' spinning from what has gone before, and perhaps actually forcing the writer to change [her] original plans." He also notes that the writer must "constantly be goaded anew," or "the project would lapse." I think I pretty much agree with his theory of "the goad." How else would we keep writing if we aren't goaded by something--some line of inquiry, some external requirement, a deadline? (Though I'm pretty sure Burke is not talking about deadlines--oh, and the piece is from 1954 and is called "The Language of Poetry, 'Dramatistically' Considered.")
Even when, on my dinner break last night, I wandered into Borders looking for some good trashy magazine to clear my head, I found myself instead leafing through this volume, a beautifully-designed coffee table book wherein writers talk about how they write, mostly their quirky associated objects and activities (Jonathan Franzen describes his squeaky desk chair; Jane Smiley talks about hot showers). It's quite the compendium of habits. I've ordered it up and may write more about it soon.
For the record, though, no one in the collection talks about carrying on writing for an "abnormal length of time." I think it's just assumed.