‘The pride in finishing a marathon is much greater than all the pain endured during the marathon.’
The words of veteran American writer and runner Hal Higdon, who has taken part in 111 marathons, sum up the highs and lows of enduring those 26.2 miles of immense physical effort.
Marathon runners usually divide the world into two kinds of people: those who have already run the distance and those who haven’t.
London, Paris, New York, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Rome – marathons are staged all over the world and the biggest ones are the only competitions which gather Olympic and world champions, intermediate runners and beginners on the same day in the same race.
Young, old, male, female, some racing in wheelchairs; people from all nationalities and religions. It could also be argued that the shared experience of running a marathon overcomes any social and cultural barrier.
The build-up to taking part in a marathon takes over your life.
Early morning runs, watching what you eat, less drinking and going out, worrying about niggling injuries. Weeks and months go by with a single-minded focus (some would say obsession) on training.
“All those months of training are over and the challenge is suddenly in front you”
A marathon contains more than 30,000 steps, and to maintain the motivation to take each one, you need to ask yourself a simple question: why I am doing this?’
Everybody will have a different answer: the culmination of striving to get fit; the sheer challenge of it; a wager; friendship; for charity in memory of a lost loved one; a lifelong ambition fulfilled…
As soon as you announce to your family and friends that you are taking the plunge, you have made a commitment and you can’t step back.
You need them to help you stay positive and focused, but you must also turn to others who can help with your preparations.
Marathon running requires a lot of technique, and seeking advice from seasoned competitors is key.
The first few training runs that you do will determine how far you still have to go to be ready to run the daunting marathon distance.
Every run is unique, depending on the conditions, your route, the time of day and how you feel, but pounding the streets over and over again can get monotonous.
That’s why it’s important to alternate between long-distance runs, shorter, more intense cardio-fitness sessions and recovery. In order to run 30,000 steps, take things step by step…
If you train reasonably hard, you will reach 10 kilometres relatively easily. Those with a decent level of fitness can aim to do 10k in less than an hour.
Once this achieved, you can think about testing your stamina and abilities by entering a half marathon, which is what I opted to do.
The alarm clock is ringing. The night was short and the sun is slowly rising outside your window. It’s Sunday morning, and once you get into the shower, you don’t want to get out because you know what’s coming.
After having had a few orange slices, a hot coffee and an enormous bowl of porridge, the stress kicks in, but you tackle it by preparing yourself as thoroughly as possible because every single detail counts.
Socks on feet, trainer laces carefully tied; all those months of training are over and the challenge is suddenly in front you.
Arriving at the event, the nerves return, but everyone taking part is united by a common goal – reaching the finish line in a couple of hours time.
Tightly packed against each other at the start, everyone is ready to share the best and the worse of long-distance running, guided by their own brand of courage and perseverance.
When the starter’s pistol is fired, your heart-rate suddenly speeds up. You are very excited and ready to rumble.
The best advice from those who have run a marathon is to manage your pace and not set off too fast.
The first few miles are quite straightforward, and by keeping to a realistic average pace, you may begin to feel a little smug. Hey, this isn’t so bad after all…
However, as the race wears on and the miles get harder, you start to understand that road running is both an individual discipline as well as one of the most collective.
Only you can run it for yourself, but you share the effort of doing so with everyone around you.
Spectators applaud and shout their encouragement, urging you on; their support really does lift your spirits.
Music will be your constant companion during the event, either through headphones or maybe there will be brass bands along the route. Music gives you energy and strength.
The end is in sight
As time passes, things get progressively worse. Your body aches, your breathing becomes laboured, your pace falters and slows.
The mile markers seem to take longer and longer to reach, but you dig deep and try to remember all sacrifices you have made over the past few months in order to take part.
“You will reflect on running 13.1 miles and may well decide: ‘I want to do to it again’.”
You will pass other runners hobbling along, barely able to walk, or people being attended to paramedics, and think ‘I don’t want that to be me.’
You cannot feel your knees anymore, you are exhausted but – strangely – you feel very strong.
As you near the finish, the crowds grow bigger and their applause and encouragement gives your morale a timely boost. You are going to make it.
Once you have crossed the line, you are engulfed by a huge feeling of satisfaction.
As you queue to pick up your finishers’ t-shirt and medal, your achievement sinks in and you feel a real sense of pride.
Suddenly, you start speaking again as runners exchange experiences and compare times. Everyone is very friendly and keen to share their result.
On the way home, fellow travellers salute your performance. Some of them will just smile, while other congratulate you. Running a half marathon is all about connecting with others.
Although your legs hurt, and will do for a few days, you will reflect on running 13.1 miles and may well decide: ‘I want to do to it again.’
Perhaps you will even begin to entertain thoughts of stepping up to the full distance… I have now signed up for next year’s Paris Marathon.
Jean Verdon took part in a half marathon in the French town of St Hillaire de Riez.
Feature image by tfxc via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.