Ultramarathons aside, in the world of running, the ultimate test of mental strength and physical fitness is the marathon. Why is running the marathon such a powerful testament to a person’s will and mental toughness? One reason: the pain. We’ll revisit this point in a bit.
In my wildest dreams, 26.2 miles is a distance I never fathomed I could complete, especially as a new runner. I was the girl who got out of running the mile in gym class. I signed up for my first marathon training team with every intention of dropping to the half. But as I checked off each new distance PR, I started to envision crossing that finish line. I’m fairly certain my mother thought I would die running my first one. Now, I’ve run 8 of them.
On the first day training for my second marathon, our head coach of the Pink Nation, Blair Just, reminded us: only 1% of the world has ever run a marathon. Marathoners are exceptional. Blair would remind us each week to breathe, relax, and believe that we could do this. This is a mantra I share with my patients often.
Many years ago, I worked with a patient who had suffered a stroke. She was a relatively young woman to have gone through this, and she was really struggling mentally. She was also a marathoner. I got to use that 1% line with her, reminding her of what a badass she was! If she can get through a marathon, she can do the work to recover from her stroke. She didn’t realize how small of a percentage of the population had actually tackled that distance! It became a mantra for her. Even if I wasn’t working with her that day, I’d catch her eye, and say, “ONE PERCENT” to her. She started to believe she could heal. She left inpatient rehab walking independently.
You can’t just decide one day that you’re going to run a marathon. This race takes planning, training, and discipline. My fall marathon training schedule begins 6 months before my race, and that’s assuming that I’ve kept up with a winter, off-season running routine.
I’ve found running to be hugely beneficial for many reasons. Other than my main means of maintaining my physical fitness, it’s my outlet for mental fitness as well. It’s my time to meditate when I run solo. It’s social time and possibly even a group counseling session when I run with friends. It’s also my way of generating endorphins. Have I ever felt a runner’s high? Yes. Yes, I have. It doesn’t happen every run, but they do happen from time to time!
But running the marathon distance (or longer) brings its own special experiences, most notably with pain. Yes, the marathon is painful, both during and after the race. But greeting the pain during the race becomes expected, especially after running multiples. Typically this starts for me at about mile 17. If you’re familiar with the Richmond Marathon, this is along Main Street, where you are often greeted by drunk brunchers who will loudly chant your name to cheer you on. On the Marine Corps Marathon course, this is on the National Mall, where you have the distraction of the Smithsonian museums and the threat of the first gauntlet to keep you motivated.
Even with these distractions, you must let that pain in, acknowledge it, and exist and persist despite it. We have other tools to help combat the pain of fatigued and spent muscles like replacing electrolytes, restoring glucose, taking walk breaks, or pausing to gently stretch, but these don’t take the pain away. You still must face the hurt to finish your race.
Regardless of the course, by the time you get to the final 10k, you just want to be done. Your legs are screaming. Your will is spent. You are questioning your sanity. You may or may not have made a deal with the universe pending your completion of this race. Most competitive marathoners will tell you that this is where the race really begins. I think the best part of the race is in the last couple of miles, because this is where the crowds are usually the biggest and loudest, and you know you will finish.
Overcoming the pain and crossing that finish line never ceases to amaze me. I experience a huge emotional release after every marathon. My Richmond races are the most special, always finding at least one person I know at the finish to award my medal. Sometimes my husband joins me for the last few miles of a Richmond race. But for all but one, I’ve cried. Not just a few tears, but a sobbing mess of ugly tears. One year, my husband captured video of me as I approached the finish, and you can clearly see me winding up to cry. Last year’s marathon was virtual, and I think I actually shouted expletives in jubilation rather than crying.
Coaching the Richmond Marathon and supporting my team on the course in 2019, it was crazy to meet my runners near the finish and instantly know what mental space they were in, simply because I had been in all of them at one point or another in each of my own marathons. You can see it in their faces. You can hear it in their voices. You can see it in their gait. Whether injured, delirious and repeating mantras, focused and unaware of how close they were to finishing, or having the best race of their lives, I had been there and knew what to do. Part advisor, part cheerleader, part dealer of salt tabs and band-aids, part medical professional: that was me. Serving in that role was so much fun! Especially watching my runners approach that finish line. I was so happy to witness them realize their dreams!
The marathon is so much more than a race. It’s a teacher of discipline, resilience, and determination. The quest to complete this goal teaches you how to focus. It teaches you how to have a relationship with pain. The rituals of training bring calm and centering to an otherwise hectic life. Training for this race builds communities. Running these races also teaches you so much about the cities in which you run.
Mentally, whenever things get tough, I remind myself that I have run not one, but multiple marathons. To choose to put myself through the pain of the race is one thing. To choose to do it again is quite another. I’m either incredibly brave and persistent, or incredibly stupid. You decide. But the brain has a funny way of making you forget how bad the pain gets, just like childbirth. One thing is certain, however. I am part of the ONE PERCENT. And no one can take that away from me. That’s the power of the marathon.
Have you considered running a marathon? Trust me. If I can do this, so can you. You, too, can be a part of the one percent. With working toward any goal, help is always helpful. In Richmond, we have the resources of the Sports Backers Marathon Training Team to guide us. If running this distance is a dream of yours, I encourage you to find a local running group to train with. As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.