“So you want to run a marathon?”
What is it like running a marathon?
You can read a lot of information out there about the preparation for a marathon in terms of the training plans and the race reviews. There is less information though around the mental preparation and what you can expect to experience leading up to, during and after a marathon. So I thought I’d try and share my experiences on it.
Hopefully this will be for everyone. For those of you out there contemplating your first marathon and entering the unknown. But also those of you who’ve already experienced it and can say ‘yep, I know what you mean’. Obviously this is biased. It’s based on me, my runs, my experiences, my mindset and approach to do things I do and how I react to circumstances I am in. It might not transfer to you at all. But maybe will provide some insight. On that note I won’t focus too much on the actual run itself. These will vary not just from person to person but location/environment and with so many other factors.
I will put the warning out now though, I’m not sure what direction this rambling might take. So it might contain too much information which you might not want to think about or know! And of course, don’t let any of this put you off!
So here’s a bunch on thoughts/things you encounter on your marathon journey…
- The procrastination of signing up – you’ll probably dwell on signing up to a marathon. You’ll look at the website a million times, speak to a ton of people and probably make all sorts of lame excuses before finally succumbing to registering. It’s normal. I think. I procrastinate on each run over and over before I finally suck it up and pay the bucks to run.
- The realisation of what you’ve done. The training and commitment required – its kind of a shock moment. The ‘oh fuck’ as reality kicks in and you realise you’re going to have to go through with this. You either train or you don’t. For me there is only one answer to that. Knowing each race is weeks and months of hard graft can be off-putting. Get your mind over it and get on with it! Find a way to enjoy your runs and the training becomes easier.
- The loneliness of the training – The hard graft means long miles. Long miles means days out just running. Mostly that will probably mean running on your own. Let’s face it, its dull. Its boring. You’ll have to find your motivation to keep going through the tough times and crack on with your training. You might find yourself tagging extra miles onto other runs/races to achieve this.
- The perceived failures along the way. Bad runs. Hangovers. Bad nutrition. Social plans. Niggles that play on your mind etc. I don’t get it right. I Just keep running. But so many things can set you back. So many things can get into your head and make you reflect less positively on a run or an experience. Don’t let it get to you, don’t let it stop you from trying again. Take it easy on yourself, our bodies are way more capable that we realise. An off-day is just that though, a day. There are many more days up and coming to be your focus and successes.
- The stress of logistics. You might sign up to a local race for convenience. 7 out of 8 of the marathons I have run have been abroad. 3 of those outside Europe. The stress of arranging flights. Agreeing time off work. Factoring in all the costs. Figuring out when you can book everything. Timing the cheap deals right. Confirming how and when you can collect your race pack and what impacts on your plans this might have. Is it disruptive to your holiday (is it even a holiday?!)? It is all just stress. Stress is not good. I always end up booking the cheap flights and regretting it later when it means I have to get up at 4am to get to the airport and dash straight to the race bib collection!
- The lack of sleep. Arriving at your destination at unsocial hours. Being tired all day. Not going to sleep early enough the night before. Yep. These are all consequences of the cheap flights in my . Don’t do what I do if you can’t handle that!
- Travelling alone – it can be lonely but it gives you independence. Travelling with others is much more fun. It does however require compromise. Will you eat what you want? Stay/sleep where you want? Get up when you want etc. For me, for a race I want a place with a toilet/shower and privacy. You don’t want to be disturbed when you need to run so far. Same thing for local races. the hours leading up to the start can be lonely and overwhelming. You can start to feel anxious without the distractions of a familiar face to talk too.
- The pre-race nutrition – At home you’ve got what you need. When you’re staying somewhere else you need to think this through. I’ve started taking porridge on “away marathons”. Not always do you have a kettle/hot water whatever needed to meet your plans. Dry granola it is then. Great… Wanting a coffee? Needing a coffee. Thinking of how to make yourself shit before you leave? (This is a big one right!…I neither want to carry that around with me nor risk a mud party in my shorts during the run).Yep. It’s not glamorous. And you’ve not even done anything yet. This is just your mind.
- The logistics of getting to the start – yes, more planning is required. Fed up of planning yet? see a marathon isn’t just about running and training! Are there transport options arranged? How reliable is public Transport? Again, is it at a time you want? If you can’t get to the start on time you’re going to regret it! Plan ahead and get there early – As Jack Reacher would say “Get your retaliation in first”. No wait, that’s not the appropriate quote….”Plan for the worst and hope for the best”!
- The hanging around at the start – The anxiety. The intimidation. The small talk. Watching the serious runners with their ‘weird’ warm ups. The awkwardness of the pre-arranged warm up that usually only a handful of people do. The fucking queues to piss. Not just the first time. But every time. Time before the marathon can really mess with your head. Be prepared for the mental battles whilst you wait. And yes, I know that might contradict getting there early. You’ll need to figure out which stresses you more – the anxieties of waiting or the stress of rushing…
- Toilet breaks – Not understanding why you need to piss so much. And how you’ve held so much piss that it’s the 5th time and your breaking records each time! Nerves play a big factor here too. It ties into you pre-race nutrition though. Give your self time to drink loads hours before the race so your body can process it in time. You don’t want to be feeling the effects 5 miles into the run!
- The waiting again. This time in the starting line up. More of the same. Hurry up already! Sometimes there are delays. Accept them, they are normally for very good reasons with participants safety in mind. Sometimes it can take you a looooong time to get over the starting line. Typically, the more mainstream the race, the longer the wait at the start line can be.
- Getting angry and defensive as the elbow bashing begins as people want to find space further forward. Get the fuck out of my bubble before I headbutt you (I have never and would never do this. I like my face too much). Etiquette goes out of the window at the start of a race.
- Suddenly realising you need a piss again. How?! Where?! Whyyyyyy!
- Setting off. It’s usually a scramble. I’ve started enjoying it and heading out fast. Finding my space again. Probably shouldn’t. Can’t imagine it’s a wise technique. Get your elbows ready again, you might be boxed in!
- You’re running now. Your thoughts are your own. But. You have to deal with them. Don’t think about pissing. Shit. Now I need a piss. Damn I thought about shit. Now I’m paranoid again. Did I take that Imodium? Did I take too many, will I ever shit again?
- You’re probably thinking about what ever race plan you had (I never mentioned that. You probably stressed thinking about how you were going to run. What goal? What pace? What time?). You’ll either stick to it (good on you) or adapt it (still good on you. Recognising and listening to your body)!
Dealing with the demons. Those fuckers in your head giving you all manner of thoughts. Work. Arrgh fuck off. Sex and people past, present, future and non existent. Wtf? Fuck off. Food. All the food! What’s waiting at the end? It better be good. Greasy burgers. Doughnuts. (Sub in you’re alternatives here). I don’t tell these thoughts to fuck off. But I don’t want them too early on. Water. Drinks. Where the fuck are the water stations? Oh. It’s only been 2 and a half miles. Will they have lids. They better not be cups. Or big bottles…
- Water – Drinking…I like to think I’m a conscientious runner. I’m thinking ahead of each water station of how I’ll get the water. How I’ll empty half the bottle (so I don’t soak myself or twat myself in the teeth when I do) without causing slippery zones or impacting other runners around me. Why do I need a piss again. Still. Fuck off you little piss demon. I’ll sweat it out. I’ll show you.
- Be aware of the carnage that can be the experience of each and every fuel station. remnants of water bottles, fruit, gels etc. all over the floor. People cutting you up etc. Look around you, be aware, they can be very selfish parts of a marathon. People aren’t always nice!
Oh look, a castle/tower/field/sea/ building/horse/bird/burger shop. Any distraction. I like to look around and try to absorb where I’m running.
- I said I wouldn’t focus on the actual run. I’m on a roll so I’ll keep going. Pain. Oh yeah. That demon is a right bitch. Anything. Any little niggle becomes a big concern. You’re paranoid again. But wait. A camera. Suck it up and smile. Yeah baby.
- What about the signs/direction information? They can fuck with you’re mind. There’s and army of demons in your head just for those. Are you a km or a mile person? Do you prefer to count up or down? They play tricks on you. I swear my watch said something different. Oh, I’ve only run an extra 0.32 miles since I last checked felt like it had been at least 4 miles.
- And so it continues. For a long long time. You’re constantly fighting your thoughts. There’s heap of techniques people use (or wish they didn’t. I met a guy once who said he can’t stop counting when he’s running races. Not counting as in calculating his time/pace (I do this sometimes, usually getting it wrong) but just incremental counting. That must be horrifically
annoying). Positive affirmations is one such technique. Repeating to yourself good things. Visualising your success. “You got this”, “going strong” “Hoooooooooo” like hacksaw Jim Duggen waving around his 2 by 4 in the early 90s. Yep. I’ve screamed that out loud in a race before. However you deal with your thoughts it’s got to be what is right for you. And only you. What works for one runner won’t for the next. And I’m particularly in awe of those out there running longer times. It means you have to deal with that shit for longer than those running quickly. Respect.
- Either way. Somehow you drag your butt to the finish. Brave face time. Strike a pose. The cameras are watching. Shit. Why did I celebrate like Alan shearer? I don’t even like him. Doesn’t matter. Usually the photographers have missed you or the geezer to your left is the one in focus and his arm has hidden your face. Or. And a pet hate. You have to pay for your photos and it’s covered with a huge watermark and a week later you get an email saying it’s £30 a photo. Fuck that (tip – it’s always half price a few weeks later. It’s not like they will do anything with them. Is all digital these days). Just to acknowledge the photographers – They do volunteer usually. They do give up a lot of time (not just on the day). It is a job for many of them. They usually are pretty great. I just don’t personally want to pay for photos these days. Cameras are everywhere. In everything. A few quid maybe. Double figures. Just nope.
Anyway. The race is done. (I did go on then didn’t I?!). What comes next?
- Race goodies – It’s time to become a crazy. Time to hoard. The medal is usually first. Thanks. (Just a note. I always thank as many people as I can. Yes. Even the photographers I won’t pay. It’s so easy to raise a thumb or clap to the musicians. The volunteers. Those giving you water and food. The traffic wardens keeping you safe. Tiny Tim and the family who clapped you at mile 16. Those giving a medal and all the post race support. Don’t be a dick. Thank them. Acknowledge them. Seriously don’t be a dick!). Medal on. Maybe a photo taken. It’s time this shit got real. Free water? Yes please. I’ll have 8. Don’t worry. I can carry them. Isotonic drink? Sure. Put it under my arm pits. Food? Great. Just stand there, unwrap it and put it straight in my mouth. Oh what’s that, oranges. Shove that in too. Put some on top of my water while you’re at it. Thanks (don’t be a dick – always say thanks). I know, this could be controversial. My greediness and perceived ‘need’ could be at the expense of those finishing after me. I genuinely believe there is enough. I’ve never met anyone or read a review where they haven’t had enough stuff left when they finished. If someone does call me out on it though I will change. Besides. It’s more like 7 waters I take. Not 8. I joke. It’s more like 4. Ok ok. It’s whatever I can actually carry. I’m exaggerating here. But you’ll probably feel the same when you finish a marathon or have felt it before!
- What comes next varies. You might have friends or family waiting. You might need to sit down. You might focus on stretching. You might head straight to collect your bag and change. Usually all of those need doing at some point.
- The ecstasy starts to kick in as you realise you are done. No more running. You’re pleased with yourself or having a retrospective of something didn’t go so well. Either way, it’s happened. Forget it. Get over it. Something learnt for next time perhaps. Talk to the runners around you. Remember that woman who whizzed past you in the last mile – go applaud her. See that dude sitting with his head in his hands, check he is ok! You’ll get a great buzz from interacting with the other finishers around you.
- Next comes more logistical stressing. This time it’s unplanned and you’re unable to focus. What do you do now? Suddenly you might not need that piss anymore. You can sweat it out after all. You might need that shit though. Your bowels have been swoshing around like a washing machine for the past few hours. It’s not going to be pretty. I once got locked in a portaloo after a race. I couldn’t contain it. I had to go. Turns out there was no water and while I was in there they’d locked it to fill it up (it was a massive trailer type toilet). That was fun. Not. I eventually got out.
- Usually I’m walking after the race. Either to transport or the accommodation. It will be slow. You’ll walk little zig zags as you’re not paying so much attention or not able to function as you normally would. Your legs might giveaway from time to time too. You get there. Eventually.
- Now what? Your post run routines are yours. Mine include (1) finishing all that’s left of my scavenger hunt (2) taking that long overdue shit (3) showering (4) washing my kit (5) trying to sleep (never actually sleeping). If I’m good I might also stretch. That will hurt though so I usually don’t.
- Surprisingly the shitting can take a while. Not because you can’t or because you can’t stop. But because you sat down on the throne and now can’t get off it. You didn’t think of that did you?! No lie. That’s right up there with steps/stairs as the hardest thing for me after a run. I once almost pulled a sink off the wall trying to (literally) pull my ass up off the toilet.
- Showering is fun and welcomed. All that sweat is now dried salt on your skin. You’ll be feeling irritable. But for me its not the only washing needed. Washing the clothes. Particularly this will apply if you’ve traveled far for a marathon. They will stink. No matter how you seal them that stink will affect your whole bag. I’d much prefer the damp smell of part dry clothes than the combination of sweat and spilled isotonic drinks/food. My tip. Wear them in the shower. Wash with the clothes on first. Best bit is you stay in the shower longer too.
- Time for some rest. You’ll have all these promises of what you’ll do afterwards. Go meet people. Some sight seeing. Doing something. Give up on them. You won’t feel like it. Your energy levels are spent. Try to rest a little. You’ll appreciate it afterwards. Be prepared to just lay there though. As tired as you are you are probably wide awake. The different positions you lay in will also hurt like hell and keep you awake too! You’ll slowly start to realise where you’re hurting.
That’s the glamour of a marathon experience. Despite all that. Don’t be put off. The feelings, sense of worth, achievement, belief, all the science-y stuff that makes you go “whoop whoop” etc. all far outweigh the negatives. Those demons can’t beat you. But you can pound them like the tarmac beneath your feet….