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What Does it Feel Like to Run a Marathon? The No BS Truth

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If you landed on this post, you’re smart. Believe me, I have run 4 marathons and never once thought to research what it actually felt like before doing it. Prepared? Not so much. Instead, I decided to learn the “fun” way by lacing up my shoes, taking off from the finish line, and seeing what happened. First, let’s get real.

Running a marathon feels like a never ending practice in pain tolerance. Unless you’ve given birth, there are few things we do in our modern world that require so much pain for so much time. 

That said, there’s a reason why I didn’t quit running marathons after my first. There’s also a reason why many many many people run marathons throughout the year and the business is booming. Running a marathon is extremely rewarding, not in spite of, but partly because of, the pain.

All 4 of my marathons are amazing memories of perseverance and accomplishment for me. There’s something special about running a marathon that keeps people coming back.

Santa Rosa marathon
That's the end of my first marathon. Not looking too awful, right? I must really love pain, I guess.

So, now that the mushy gushy stuff is over, let’s talk about what running a marathon actually feels like.

If you’re a beginner, this will be helpful, but don’t take it as gospel. While there are some things that people universally experience when running a marathon, it’s also a personal and unique thing. Research will only get you so far until you actually go out and experience it for yourself.

If you’ve run marathons before, let me know if you can relate!

The Beginning of a Marathon: Miles 1-12

Yes, I realize that 12 miles is a weird way to define the “beginning.” But, the game changes after 12 miles, so it’s a good cut off point. 

Obviously, this is the best you’ll feel physically…probably for the next week. While that’s great, it can also be a problem. 

Many runners feel too good at the beginning of a marathon and start running too fast. If you’re like me, you’ll even intentionally ditch your pacing guide because you believe you’ve turned into some kind of superhero. Don’t do that–it’s dumb. 

That picture over there, that’s me after I ditched my pacing guide at the beginning of the race. Yeah, stick to your pacing guide…

Once you have your pacing under control, the next thing you should do is get your mental game in check. This is not only when you will physically feel the best, but mentally as well.  By mile 17, you won’t care about anything other than swearing and putting on foot in front of the other. 

Think about:

fremont marathon

These are all things you will have obsessively planned for before starting the race, so it’s likely this will be a quick run through of your checklist. It’s important though, as things might get a little more…messy…as the miles go on.

The beginning of a marathon is when my breathing gets the most out of control, which can be really frustrating. The adrenaline, nerves, excitement, and fast pace usually leave me huffing and puffing and off of my breathing game. 

Rhythmic breathing has been a huge help with calming down and reregulating my breathing pattern. If you haven’t checked out rhythmic breathing, it’s worth doing. It not only helps me calm down during a race, it helps me use my breath more efficiently, which helps me run faster. Speed gains from breathing? I’ll take it.

Ok, now that we’re past that exciting 10 mile stretch, let’s talk about what the middle of a marathon feels like.

The Middle of a Marathon: Miles 12-20

Now that the excitement of starting the marathon is beginning to ware off, you’ll notice that your brain starts to pipe up and give you doubts. Here is just a sampling of what my brain rewards me with:

Are we really only 12 miles in? Can’t you count? That means we have 16 more.

Whose dumb idea was this?

Maybe we should change the podcast we’re listening to every 5 minutes

I’m bored

For me, distraction is the key to getting through the middle of a marathon. 

You’ll start to notice some physical discomfort but, if you managed to get a hold of your pacing, it shouldn’t be worse than what you’re used to in training.

The number one thing I feel at this point is BOREDOM. It’s like leaving an amusement park as a kid. Just a few minutes ago, it was exciting, crazy, entertaining, and emotion-filled. Now, there are only a few people around, nothing exciting is happening, and you’re left alone with your thoughts.

By the middle of the marathon, the pack of runners will have thinned out a bit. Unless it’s a small race, you probably won’t be alone, but the feeling of comradery will change. 

This is when a lot of people “get in the zone” and it becomes much more of an individual experience. It’s you and the road!

Preparing for the boredom at this stage of the marathon is an important thing to work on in training. Come up with mind games you can play to keep yourself entertained, pick out some of your favorite podcasts to listen to, or simply do everything you can to not think about how bored you are. 

The End of a Marathon: Miles 20-26.2

Alright, now we get to the good stuff! 

In my head, a marathon is almost two separate races: miles 1-20 and miles 20-26.2. Those last 6.2 miles are such a different beast that they can’t even be considered in the same category as the other 20.

Many marathon training programs tell runners to run a maximum of 20-22 miles during their training. This means that this last stage of the marathon is going to take you into unknown territory. Painful territory. Rewarding territory, but also very painful. 

In all 4 of my marathons, my brain has chosen these last 6.2 miles as the time to either completely shut down or get very upset. In one marathon, all I could do is repeat, “one step in front of the other.” It didn’t help that my headphones died and all I could hear was myself repeating this mantra over and over again.  

In another, all I could do was say awful things about running, myself, and basically anything I could think of.  

Usually, it’s a mix of both.

The normal question to ask here is, what exactly is hurting so much?

Everything. 

Your legs, lower back, arms, and abs are all ready to be done. Basically, your body is telling you to do an epic table flip without giving this crazy job of running a two weeks notice. 

The pain isn’t searing, sharp, or intense. If it is, you should stop immediately and get help. The pain I normally feel during that last 6.2 miles is like the worst type of ache imaginable. It’s like your entire body is as sore as it has ever been in your entire life, but you still need to keep moving anyway. 

santa cruz marathon

I have a rule that I never stop or walk during a marathon. Yes, this is a nice goal and everything, but it’s also really practical. These last miles will go against all of your body’s natural instincts. Your body will think you’re crazy and will do everything in its power to get you to stop.

The second you stop or walk, it will be very hard to start back up again. Not only will your brain rejoice over the break and try to convince you to quit, you will lose the momentum you had. Even in these few seconds, your muscles may start to tense up and get stiff. That doesn’t help.

Momentum is really key in these last few miles. If you stop, you’ll need to propel yourself forward again. While this seems like a small thing, it’s not. By the end of a marathon, putting one foot in front of the other is hard enough without taking the energy to start and stop. 

Keep yourself moving. 

A quick note about the .2. People who don’t run don’t understand why we all care so much about the .2. You’ve run 26 miles, what difference does .2 make? Well, that’s the point. We’ve run 26 miles, so the .2 makes all the difference.

The Finish Line

Once you’re past that pesky .2, you get the moment you’ve been waiting for–the finish line. 

To say that the finish line of a race is a magical mix of emotions is an understatement. All at the same time, you’re in more pain than you could ever imagine, more proud of yourself than you ever thought you could be, and extremely overwhelmed. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and emotion of it all and forget that your body just did a really incredible physical thing. Yes, it is actually easy to forget. I know, it’s counterintuitive and surprising. Even though you’ve been focused on the physical pain for countless hours now, your emotions take over. 

That’s why this next point is so important–keep moving. Your body will want to shut down, but don’t give in. If you sit down, you won’t be able to get back up again and you’ll be in more pain than if you had forced yourself to walk a bit.

Your body has been running for hours at this point. Coming to a complete stop will only make you more stiff and tense than you have already set yourself up to be. Prepare ahead of time to keep moving after you cross the finish line and your body will eventually thank you later. 

So, how does it feel to run a marathon? It feels like the best and most rewarding type of pain out there. That’s why I keep coming back. 

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