A colleague’s wife made a deep impression on me at some schmoozy work event when I was younger. Starry eyed, I asked her about her recent experience running a marathon. I’d never done one before. She responded: it was brutal. I’ll stick to half marathons from now on.
Marathons break you, she said.
Now, it’s some 15 years later and here I am nearly done with, what, my fifth marathon training cycle. Her words have come back to haunt me. Why am I doing this again?
Just to paint the picture, here is what marathon training looks like for me:
I have a Google Calendar training schedule, color-coded and blocking off what I’m supposed to be doing every week. In the beginning, the schedule is relatively light. I run a few times during the workweek, and on the weekends I throw in a long, easy run. By “long,” I mean it starts with 60 or 90 minutes.
Then, those long runs gradually creep up in duration. I find myself running for two hours, then two and a half, then three and finally five.
As the long runs get longer, so do the mental acrobatics I go through to design and complete them.
I spend painstaking hours on Google Maps trying to pin distances for running this route versus that. I think about the terrain of the race itself and try to approximate it with routes near my home. I try to design routes that won’t bore me to death — ideally, something I’m familiar with but not sick of; a circular route or at least a lollipop.
The morning of my long run, I pick myself up and try to get out the door before I have a chance to fully comprehend what I’m about to do to my body.
I break down the run in my mind to manageable sections in a deranged way.
“I’m going on five hour-long runs today!” I might announce to myself or a concerned friend.
It helps the time and effort go by. It’s much easier to say to myself, I am running for an hour with this podcast; the second hour-long run is in silence, then I get some music for an hour, rather than simply set out for a five-hour sufferfest.
I plod along, telling myself to go slowly. I think of the first hour as a warmup. After that, I tell myself I have but four hours to go. Running is at least half about psychological trickery.
Things start to break down. Most acute is when I feel it in my inner thigh. There’s this muscle in there that starts to feel raw, and when that happens I know I’m really pushing myself. At hour three or so, I know I’m in the heart of the run. Everything beyond that point is the true training, because I haven’t done that much time yet.
It’s such an exquisitely fine line between recognizing when I’m in physical discomfort versus truly in pain. Most of the time, my brain is barking at me that I’m in pain when I know it’s just normal training woes — after all, the point of all of this is to push myself further each time so I’ll be ready eventually for the full distance.
That runner’s high they talk about is real, but it coexists within the same brain barking about pain versus discomfort and willing me to please stop. Endorphins flood in, bringing a hazy awareness of the cosmos and my role in it while nudging against but not fully eclipsing that insistent, fresh soreness in my legs.
I eat margarita flavored gummy candies designed for runners and tell myself they are delicious, even as I am irritated by tonguing out the remaining gummy residue from my teeth. I’ve never liked that about gummies, and while out on a demanding run every single tiny irritation is a monumental hurdle.
Then I get home, traumatized and useless for the day. I get some real food in my face quickly — something with some carbohydrates and protein for my poor sore muscles. I fill up my water bottle and sit for an hour in a bathtub full of Epsom salts. Something is always chafed, despite my best efforts to apply anti-chafing cream properly. My feet are always destroyed, probably due to my stubborn unwillingness to purchase new shoes more than every other year.
This time, like every other, I wonder: why didn’t I heed the advice of my colleague’s wife? I agree with every word. The 26.2-mile marathon distance is punishing. Yet, here I am training again.
I have nothing to prove, to myself or anyone else. I’ve already done a few of these. I could wash my hands of it forever. So, what gives?
It’s because in the face of not training for a marathon or not having everything culminate in what is hopefully a glorious race day, I would miss it. I would miss all of it — the thrum of many footsteps all around me and the waving of volunteers throughout, the serene moments running my own race through familiar and unfamiliar beautiful Alaska terrain, and the reward of topping off the whole experience with beers and burgers.
When I complete the race, I’ll forget all about the grind. Or at least I’ll collapse it into one big prior event, not the many discrete days and sessions I spent training. It’s all one memory compared to the main event, where every single mile is the last one of its kind in the marathon, putting me 10 or 11 minutes closer to the glorious end and that feeling of absolute accomplishment.
Brutal? Yes. Addicting? Absolutely. I’m done with marathon training after this one, until I forget and sign up for another one.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.