I originally posted this essay on my friend Jenny’s blog about a year ago. I thought it would be a nice reminder to all of you who ran the Twin Cities Marathon yesterday, or maybe an inspiration for any of you who are running another marathon this year! Run on, friends!
Everyone who has run a marathon insists that the marathon is really two races: the first twenty miles, and the last six point two.
During the first twenty miles, assuming you have adequately trained, your body does what you have prepared it to do: At mile 10, you wonder why you don’t run marathons every day of your life. Thousands of people shout your name, cow bells echo the clarion call of your own personal greatness, endorphins pulse through your body, and the road floats beneath you as you glide through the miles with effortless joy.
At mile fifteen, your legs begin to feel fatigued, but you still enjoy the race. I’ve even had deliriously happy moments at this phase of the race when I felt sad about the inevitable finish line looming in the distance; I didn’t want it to end!
But at mile twenty, it all begins to change. The glycogen in your body is rapidly diminishing. What used to be a slight ache in your hips is now constant and sharp, as if you are missing some essential lubricant, without which you will grind to a halt, in a heap of smoke and bones and pain. The bottoms of your feet, which used to feel fluid and graceful, are now made of iron; they’re heavy and they clang in protest with every foot strike.
If the first twenty miles are mostly physical, the last 6.2 are all mental.
Fans lining the sides of the course, noticing your obvious pain, will shout encouraging banalities like, “You’re almost there!” even though you know you are nowhere near the end. Your mind and your body are now engaged in full-scale war. Your body demands that you quit this foolish, meaningless quest. I have run 10 marathons, and I cannot recall even once when I did not desperately want to quit somewhere between mile 20 and the finish.
In the last two miles of the race, your focus narrows. You feel every stab of pain, your brain is foggy with dehydration, the blister on the back of your heel is now open and raw, and you can’t believe you haven’t seen the mile 25 marker yet. You convince yourself that in your state of semi-delirium, you must have missed it. But something inside you knows you have not.
Mile 25 is a torture chamber. But as you creep by the miler marker, you realize that you are going to finish. Though the pain continues to increase, your mind has conquered, and your body has given in. You know that you are going to finish. I have run one particular marathon 9 times, so I know every step of the route intimately, especially the last 1.2 miles. At mile 26, the runners turn slightly left, crest a gentle hill, and then the finish line comes into view. In that moment, a wash of emotion comes over me that causes me to weep. By some act of exquisite grace on the part of the course planners, these last two tenths of a mile are mostly downhill, and sometimes I draw on the last drips of glycogen that remain in my body and attempt to sprint down that hill and across that mat, signifying that the race has ended, and I have endured.
I do not run for the medals, tee shirts, for accolades from friends, or because I’m addicted to competition. I run marathons because of what is forged in the crucible of those last painful miles of the marathon: when I fear that there is nothing left, there is more.
There is more.