An Inside Look… at a Marathoner’s Mind
What goes on in the mind of a marathon runner? Non-runners don’t always understand the logic behind running 26.2 miles, and sometimes runners themselves question it as well. Whether you have run one, many or none… step inside my mind for a bit and see what really goes on in the mind of one marathoner.
Pre-marathon. My running partner and I are at the start line a half hour early. The area is covered with runners hosting various pre-race outfits. Some have hats, mittens, and oversized sweatshirts which they will drop shortly before or after the race starts. It is a sea of nervous energy, with everyone just wanting to get going.
This time must be used wisely, however, so I use it by joining the ranks of runners standing in line for the porta potties. Looking at the number of runners waiting, it would seem that the race director got on a megaphone and said, “Attention runners. This is the last chance in your life that you will have to use a bathroom.” Accordingly, the lines are a mile deep.
I try to get in subtle stretching and loosening as I stand in line. While I may appear quiet and pensive, my mind is racing. Am I wearing the right outfit? Should I wear these gloves? I hate these red gloves, why did I bring these red gloves? I look like a clown. Did I drink enough Gatorade? Too much? Will I run out of energy, get injured, or have a mental breakdown on the course?
Yes, I am officially freaking out. I’d also bet that 90% of my porta potty buddies are head cases as well. It’s all a part of what happens when newbies or veterans decide to tackle the elusive 26.2. All of these people are aware in one way or another of a mysterious entity known only to marathoners and not able to be seen by the human eye. That something is called “the bubble.”
What is the “bubble?”
The Bubble. The Start Line is the entrance to the bubble. Like Dorothy’s first steps on the Yellow Brick Road, runners who enter the bubble know the only way they can reach home and safety again is by following it. The bubble represents The Land of the Marathon. When you are in this land, your mind, body, and spirit go through a series of changes, making you, your friends, your family, and generally everything you know to be real in this lifetime questionable at best.
You are happy. You are sad. You are a raving lunatic one-minute, Mother Teresa the next.
You may remark at the beautiful scenery or a cute child spectator or dog, then turn a corner and declare that you hate everything in your path.
You feel great. You are sprinting to a porta potty.
Logical thoughts enter your mind and future plans are made. Yes, you will enter grad school in the spring, that’s it. Your whole life has now been figured out. Then, 400 yards later, you can’t remember your name or what language you speak.
There are revelations, “Wow, running has really changed my life for the better.”
And declarations, “I am NEVER running again after this *$#@ing marathon.”
At some or all parts of this race, you will stop being an adult and you will reconnect with your 13-year-old self.
It all happens in the bubble.
But, let’s begin with…
The Start Line. For those who have run marathons, they know that the moments before the gun goes off are precious. They are your last sane moments for several hours. Here at the start, I know I am about to enter the elusive “bubble,” a place I equally love and fear. I try to take advantage of my time in this safe space, before it all begins.
My friend and I have pushed our way to the 3:40 pace group. She asks me if I’m sure we belong here. She reminds me this is a really fast pace. Silently agreeing with her, I lie and assure her we’ll be fine. Then I look around at a lot of really experienced looking runners, jumping up and down to warm up. I take a moment to jiggle my body around too. At which point I feel completely not prepared compared to all of the fit, buff runners around me. I bet they ran more than two times this past week. I bet they didn’t just get over a cold. I bet they didn’t have a glass of red wine with their dinner last night. Plus, their outfits are much cooler and their shoes appear newer. I am so screwed.
In this completely logical frame of mind, I continue to jump around and assess the crowd until the National Anthem.
The National Anthem. Thanks to the red, white, and blue, my emotions are now reaching overdrive. I am patriotic, reflective, nervous, emotional, and ready to rock and roll. I also feel like I’m going to pee my pants. You’d think I’d get a handle on this whole start line thing by now, but no, every single time is the same. I am scared out of my mind. Yet, as the crowd moves forward towards the start line… I am suddenly euphoric. (Enter manic phase of marathon) Woo hoo, I love marathons!
Miles 1-3. This is easy! This is fun! What a great thing to do on a Sunday morning. I think about all of the people still sleeping in bed, the lazy bums. I will feel so good when this is done! Look at all of these interesting people around me. I should talk to them. There are runners ahead of me who have been consistently ahead of me the whole 20 minutes I’ve been out here. I am beginning to be familiar with their backsides.
Take for example Pink Shirt Girl. After trailing her, I am now beside her and see she has a cool iPhone holder. I guess it’s technically called a case. I should really get a new case, as mine is old and trashy. I think I’ll get a pink one. Or maybe red. I turn to my running partner to discuss. She looks less than impressed with my plan. I guess it’s not that exciting.
Now we are passing a church, and it looks like the entire congregation is outside, singing Amazing Grace. I wonder why they are planted so early on the course, and not later in the race when I really need them. However, seeing so many church people in one big group reminds me to take a moment and feel grateful to be able to do what I’m doing.
Just before we hit the 3 Mile mark, I ask my friend if we hit 1 yet. Her look begs, Are you a complete moron? Yet she simply states, “We’re approaching 3.”
Enter early marathon dementia.
Mile 3.5 I think about how good I feel, and mentally decide to just not let (as if I can ultimately decide this) my body feel any worse for the rest of the run. I am in the portion of the bubble where I still have control over my body and its actions.
At Mile 4, there is a community band.
I think about how this course sure has a lot of music, and how nice these band members are to share their Sunday with me.
Mile 5. My friend is awfully quiet. Dang, I wish I had brought my iPhone because I really would like to play some tunes now.
Miles 6-7. We are starting to pass some of the walking half marathoners. I briefly consider that maybe the half wouldn’t have been such a bad idea, as there are still roughly 20 miles to go. 20 miles. I make a mental decision to take the rest of the marathon mile by mile. Just as I’m thinking this, my friend says, “Hey, we’re almost in the double digits.” What? After miles of silence, she decides to begin a conversation with a lie? In marathon terms, 7 is not that close to double digits, I’m sorry. Yet with my fool-proof “one mile at a time” plan, her proclamation (lie) doesn’t bother me as much.
Mile 8. I realize that mile by mile… is still a lot of miles. Why am I starving now? Oh, maybe because I ate breakfast at 4:45 a.m., and on a normal day I eat at 6 and am hungry by 9, without running 8 miles. Do I eat my Shot Blocks now? Since my friend also ate hours ago, she is apparently hungry as well and is reaching for her gel. I feel better digging in. This is part of my “don’t let your body stop feeling bad” theory. I won’t let myself run out of energy. Ever.
Mile 9. Should aggravation settle in so early in the run? Because Pink Shirt Girl with the cool iPhone case is really getting on my nerves. She is far enough away to remain out of reach, but close enough to be a tempting distraction. I want to pass her stupid pink shirt. I don’t care if she has a cool iPhone case. I hate her.
Mile 10. Double digits— excellent! I turn to my friend and say, “Hey, now it’s just like we’re going out for a 16 mile long run.” I know this is a ridiculous thing to say, yet for the moment we both feel as if it’s the best revelation I’ve had all year.
Plus, Pink Shirt Girl is nowhere to be seen, thank God. Maybe things are turning around. The spectators around me are all so nice. My new favorite person in the world just handed me a piece of licorice. It’s like all of mankind is working together to help me finish this run.
But… who is the mad clomper behind me? Seriously, how can one person make so much noise running? I glance back to find a boy who appears to be about 12. Okay, now I feel bad. Cool that he’s here. He must be doing the relay.
I try to calm down about the noise.
Okay forget that, this kid is making me nuts. Didn’t anyone teach him how to run properly? Who are his clomper allowing parents and how can I get away from this kid?
And hey… isn’t there an age requirement for this race???
Mile 11. My friend and I really haven’t talked much during this run, which is pretty normal for us. During marathons, we are silent, with each of us residing in our own 26.2 bubble, facing our demons as we go. Right now my demons are asking why the hell I am out here. I’m not sure what to tell them. While I wish this were more like mile 21, I still feel pretty good and look forward to the half mark that’s coming up.
Mile 12. I feel great as we near the halfway point. In fact, I am feeling so great, I am extra ecstatic and turn to my friend to share the moment. “ALRIGHT! We’re almost halfway done! That went pretty fast, didn’t it?” She looks at me as if I have just told her that I was going to pour oil on her retina. Oh. I see we are in the predicament where one partner feels good, the other not so much.
I must tread lightly and encourage her gently. We know this about each other, each having been in this place before.
“You okay?” She nods, then asks me not to talk. I get this.
Mile 13. It is amazing how the tables can turn. Silent Sue has apparently been overtaken by her cousin Chatty Cathy, just in time for my side stitch’s arrival. What the hell, I haven’t had a side ache since the shuttle run in 7th grade. Breathe. I must breathe through the pain like a mother in labor. I pretend to listen as my friend talks about what race we should do in the spring.
Mile 14. I’m not exactly sure how or when, but my side ache has gone away, only to be replaced by a pain on the top of my foot. Hmmm. It appears as if all of the bones on the top of my foot have somehow broken. I think about when my PT roommate in college was having me help her study the foot. There are a lot of bones there, and I wonder how many of mine hurt… for no reason at all. Is this a stress fracture? I am going to try to focus on something else; maybe the pain will go away.
Mile 15. Well, I’ve got something else to focus on: finding a porta potty. It seems like the company who dropped all of those units off early on in the course must have thought this was a half marathon, because I have not seen a potty for miles. With two things now to not think about, maybe I’ll talk to my friend. Just as I think this, I notice she is breathing in a way that indicates talking is probably not top on her list right now. I try to go to that meditative state where you don’t think about anything.
Mile 16. I begin to go for that meditative state when I first see the Mile 16 sign. But here’s the thing- it’s not exactly easy for me to achieve that blissful state of no thoughts when I’m in a candle lit room with Enya softly playing. It’s even more difficult to think about nothing when you’ve been running for two and a half hours, need to use a bathroom, have an aching foot, and legs filling with lactic acid. Try that on for size, Buddha. So, I decide to use my meditative powers to manifest a bathroom. Bingo, I am granted that wish just before Mile 17.
Mile 17. I think a great fundraiser would be to charge runners for bathroom use during a marathon, because I would have given up my automobile for this one. Feeling like a million bucks, I have a renewed sense of hope as I continue on my journey. My running partner looks all right as well, and I debate asking how we are doing time wise. What the hell, I’ll ask. I tap my wrist and she tells me we are still in the running for 3:40. This surprises and energizes me. From 14-17, I didn’t know if I’d make it; now I feel like picking up the pace. My running partner tells me she’s feeling okay as well.
Mile 18. This mile passes rather quickly, and I look around to see how the people around me are doing. Pink Shirt Girl is still ahead of me, and suddenly my one goal in life becomes to take her down. Forgetting that my friend has not been in my evil head this whole time, I turn to her and say, “Let’s get her!” She promptly asks WHO the HELL I am talking about, and I don’t have enough energy to explain, so forget about Pink Shirt Girl for the moment.
Mile 19. My friend has the weird breathing again, and I know it’s my duty to offer more gentle encouragement. It can’t be too nice, because we both know there’s nothing more annoying than someone being really nice to you when you are beginning to struggle.
“Hey another mile and we just have a 10K. Right?” If I could close caption her look it’d go something like, “Right, b$#@$. Now please shut the hell up.”
I silently proceed.
Mile 20. Now I’m the one wondering why it was so great to “only” have a 10K left. 10K my ass, it’s still a long way. The good news is, I think the “stress fracture” from Mile 14 is gone. The bad news, my legs are starting to feel like lead weights, a normal occurrence around this time. I’m never sure if this works, but I pound on them with my fists like an alchemist… to get the lead moving.
Mile 20.5 ish… I ask my friend if 22 is next because honestly I can’t remember what the last mile marker was. I *hope* it was 21… but I fear that I am wrong. My friend tells me it was 20, so of course I am mad at her for sharing this truth.
Mile 21. Part of me thinks it’s my friend’s fault that this is only 21. Like, if she had said we just passed 21, somehow magically we’d be at 22. This is the point of the marathon that’s similar to a patient post op…no major decisions should be made at this time because the mind just isn’t rational or logical.
After what seems like 4 hours, I see Mile 22 in the distance.
I want to cry now, and think to myself that I always want to cry at mile 22. Why is this, I wonder? Oh, wait, I know… it’s because I want to be done. I want to be done, or I want to turn into one of the polar fleece wearing, coffee drinking spectators, sitting on their lawn chairs cheering me on. I want to STOP MOVING ALREADY. Yet… I have four point two miles left. I think this explains the tears physically. Emotionally is a whole other ballgame that I won’t even begin to psychoanalyze at this point.
All I know is that I have four point two of the most challenging miles of my life left, where a series of things could happen. My legs could stop working. My bowels could explode. I could pass out. I could trip, because my legs have stopped working. Or… I could choose to talk myself off the CLIFF I am on, and realize that I need to relax, breathe, and take it one step at a time.
I remember my holly jolly “one-mile at a time” theory. Just make it to 23. 23 is all I need to get to, and when I get there, I will take it to the next mile, and so forth.
But, where in the HELL is 23? Was 22 a joke? Did I even see that sign? And, if one more spectator tells me that I am almost there, I may snap. Mark my words.
Mile 23. I can see the sign. Unless it’s a mirage. I think I see the sign, and I think after it, there is a water stop. Crap. Suddenly, it’s not about the sign and more about the dilemma… do I get water or do I get Gatorade? Or do a I nothing? I don’t want to consume anything for a very long time, yet I have three point two miles remaining, and I don’t know if I will need this last burst of Gatorade.
I decide to wing it- see how much I hate the teens distributing the drinks. If I can find a teen that doesn’t anger me right now, I will take water from him or her.
A nice boy with glasses gives me a cup and says, “Good job, Abbey! Have some Gatorade.”
Okay, #1, he reminded me of what my name was, which was questionable for a while, and #2, he seemed really polite.
I decide this is a universal message to drink the Gatorade. I do, and instantly regret it.
I now hate the boy with glasses, as I spend a half-mile with stomach pain and pure hatred.
Miraculously, Mile 24 pops up much sooner than I expected. I no longer have stomach pain and I no longer hate glasses boy. I am energized thinking that I have two point two miles to go. I have run two miles before. I pretend I am in high school again, doing the two-mile event.
Mile 25. While YES, I wish this were the finish line, it is the next best thing. I pound my legs a few times to charge them up. I soak in the crowd. Focus on the mile ahead, and tell myself that soon it will be over. What, am I going to stop now? Hell, no! My friend and I, still unable to really converse, just look at each other with mutual “almost relief.” We can do this.
Mile 26. Even though the “mile” from 25 to 26 feels like ten, we make it to 26 and turn it on for the last point two miles… and wouldn’t you know it- pink shirt girl is in my direct line of vision. I look to my friend and signal a full-out sprint. With the crowds cheering us on, we bring it in, just a bit over our goal time.
Enter the next phase of oblivion where walking is challenged, food is needed yet not exactly welcomed, and friends and family are met with a sort of “Hey, I know you, but I can’t really spell my name right now. Talk to me in a bit when I come to my senses…”
And then, when my friend and I both do come to our senses, are hydrated, and changed into warm, dry clothes, we get in our car and talk about our next race, because after struggling through the marathon and finishing, we know…
“There’s not a better feeling than when you have found that moment of balance and harmony when both running and life come together. Then you know why you run and that you couldn’t live without it.” -Joan Benoit Samuelson
by abbey algiers