Why Do We Run Marathons?

IMG_2645As I crossed the finish line in Chicago this past Sunday after running 26.2 miles, my legs virtually locked up in complete and total exhaustion. I shuffled through the finishing chute collecting water, food, and my medal and I watched as other finishers struggled. A couple were placed in wheelchairs. One woman, her face pale and her eyes almost lifeless, was rushed away to an ambulance. The rest of us limped along, virtually silent. There were no audible cheers of joy or shouts of celebration. We were like zombies. I said to the girl next to me with a bit of a giggle, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” She was too tired to answer. While they couldn’t say it, I knew everyone was likely feeling the same combination of pain and total pride that I was experiencing.

IMG_2630“Why?” The thought has certainly crossed my mind other times before. Like during the final miles of the two previous marathons I had run earlier this year. And even at the start of this race when the nerves and excitement had me jittery with anticipation about what the next four hours would have in store for me. With over 45,000 runners, it took almost 15 minutes from the time the race started until I would even get up to the starting line. Here it was…finally! The moment for which I had been preparing for 18 weeks. It was well worth the wait.

I ran the first miles quickly, weaving between the tall buildings and over the Chicago River and soon began to discover that my tight legs weren’t going to make today’s run an easy one. My heart felt like it was racing and I was a little short of breath, probably from starting out at a faster pace than I had been used to. The crowds were plentiful and somehow coupled with the close quarters between runners, it made me feel surprisingly anxious, almost claustrophobic. I thought about the many miles ahead and the difficulty that lie before me. Yet the energy and excitement kept me moving north through the neighborhoods in which I spent a few years as a young “twenty-something”. With 8 to 10 miles down, we ran through “Boys Town” and then “Old Town” and I finally began to set my nerves aside.

After making our way back through the Loop and crossing the half way mark, my ankles that had suffered injury during my training felt tight and a bit achy. I knew the second half would be a fight. By mile 14 my legs were telling me to stop and walk for a bit. I convinced them to wait until mile 15. When I got there I persuaded them to keep going. At about this point I saw a man walking barefoot, well limping, holding his shoes with his head down in despair and his mouth grimacing in pain. “Why do we do this to ourselves?,” I again pondered.

IMG_2655Somewhere around mile 17 or 18 it became increasingly more difficult to continue. I told myself I could walk through the water stops. To me that felt acceptable and more respectable than walking at other places on the course. At the time I was questioning whether I could actually finish and was thinking I would have to walk the last six miles. Feeling nauseous (likely from the warmer weather) I couldn’t stomach any more Gatorade or gels but I knew if I didn’t hydrate I would certainly hit the wall. Walking those few water stops became my method for making it to the finish. I focused on getting to the next water stop instead of through 6 more miles.

The rest of the race is pretty blurry. I was just puffing along trying to make my brain tell my legs to shut up, or vice versa. After mile 22 or 23 I told myself there was no walking. Looking at my watch I could see that I still had a chance to meet my original goal of under 4 hours or at least come in a minute or two faster than my PR from Cleveland of 4:06. My legs were entirely cramped up at this point, but I kept running. It probably looked more like shuffling to the spectators watching me, but I was giving it everything I had. It was like I had the pedal to the metal but I had a flat tire. At about mile 24 my watch died so I really had no idea what speed I was actually going.

All around me people were walking, holding their hamstrings or pinching the cramp in their side. Others had stopped to stretch on the curb. Fans watching held signs saying things like “Pain is temporary, pride is forever.” and “Do Epic Shit.” They kept me going. The final mile seemed to last an eternity. I could see the tall buildings of the Loop up ahead, but it was as if I was running on a treadmill and not getting any closer to them. I skipped the last water stop and kept pressing on hoping that I might still beat 4:06. Not that it really mattered. All I really wanted to do at this point was finish and put that medal around my neck. I turned the corner and inched up the last little hill yelling an obscenity or two and into the park crossing the finish line unsure of my chip time, but pleased that I had persevered.

IMG_2647So “Why DO we do it?” One sign I saw on the course said, “You are all crazy.” Yeah, apparently. But all joking aside, I’ve been doing a lot of legitimate soul searching since Sunday after the pain I felt and saw in Chicago. Why do perfectly intelligent people decide to put themselves through the cramps, the blisters, the chafing, the drama and the misery of those last miles of a marathon? Why do we risk injury and for some, very sadly, even death, to run 26.2 miles? It’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for my family and I know it’s a question that non-runners probably ask themselves when they witness our apparent idiocy. It’s a question that even we as runners ask ourselves on occasion. Here’s where I’ve come out.

I think we all run marathons for different reasons. For some, the answer might be as simple as, “Because I love to run.” But c’mon, who really LOVES running miles 20 to 24 of a marathon? For others, perhaps it’s an item they want to check off their bucket list. Still others want to “earn their stripes” as a runner; a badge of honor or perhaps they’re just curious to see what it feels like. And I suppose many runners want to do it simply for bragging rights. I can’t answer for everyone else. I can only tell you why I have run three marathons.

For me, the desire to run a marathon began about a year ago. Before then I was actually pretty vocal about the fact that I had absolutely NO interest in ever trying. Three years ago I could only run a few miles and wouldn’t have even considered that a marathon would be in my future. But last fall, after having completed a number of half marathons I began to finish 13.1 miles to discover I had more in me. I enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment that came with finishing half marathons and I had the desire to see what else I might be capable of. After having watched my husband run a number of marathons (the 2014 New York Marathon in particular), I began to discover that I felt envious of him and the other runners. I watched women who looked a lot like me and thought, “If she can do it, so can I.” Sure, the idea of running that far scared the shit out of me, but the fact that something scared me made me want to conquer my fear. Running has unveiled a bit of a competitive streak in me, more like a lightning bolt. So, last winter after my husband and I had signed up to run the Big Sur Marathon again as a relay team, I told him I wanted to start the relay and run the whole race. Curiosity, the desire to see what I had in me and the drive to conquer something that scared me were my original motivators.

During training for Big Sur when I ran 15, 17 and 20 mile runs for the first time, is when I began asking the “Why do I do this to myself?” question. Running through single digit temps or on the treadmill for two hours caused me to do a lot of soul searching about my motivations and desires. I experienced a few “Why” moments again while running my second marathon in Cleveland three weeks after Big Sur and yet again while training this past summer through sweltering heat and being away from my kids on Saturday mornings to run for 3 hours to prepare for Chicago.

IMG_2641So after all this reflection, “Why do I run marathons?”

The question is always answered as soon I make it to the other side of “the impossible” to feel the complete satisfaction and total gratification of meeting a goal that seemed unattainable and unrealistic at one point. Some of it IS simply about my love of running; my own legs carrying me from one town to the next or from one end of a city to the other. In part, it is about my love of the outdoors and the open road. The desire to run a marathon starts as curiosity, uncertainty and fear. Then, like a drug, the high in those moments (well, hours) when you’re actually achieving it has you immediately hooked. The euphoria of conquering the “impossible” and tackling that fear keeps me coming back for more. I like how it feels to step out of my comfort zone, test my abilities and push my limits. It’s a good way to live life.

Most of all, for me, completing a marathon gives me something tangible to cling to during the rest of my days when I might question whether or not I’m able to achieve another goal. It helps give me the confidence to say, “I didn’t think I could run 26.2 miles and I did. I ran through doubt and pain and came out the other side. If I can do that, I can do THIS.” (Whatever “this” is.) Running marathons gives me confidence and faith in myself that I can persevere. It primes me for the challenges that life has in store for me. It’s like practicing for the pain life is going to throw your way. Are you going to stop and quit? Or are you going to keep running through it?

Sure, the last miles of a marathon are painful. The way I see it, a couple of hours of pain are worth a lifetime of knowing that I have, can and will set goals and come out the other side no matter what sort of obstacles I have to work through along the way. Do you have to run a marathon to teach yourself that? Of course not. But it sure is one pretty powerful lesson.

IMG_2663After three marathons in six months, I have proven to myself that I CAN do it. With the pride, confidence, contentment, self-awareness and humility that I have gained from those experiences in my back pocket, I’m ready to take on new challenges and tackle with zeal the biggest challenge of all, the marathon of every day life.

And while I think I’ll hang up my marathon hat for a bit and spend a little less time running on the road and little more time running after my kids, I know that marathons are also a little like child birth. While it’s happening and in the days after you might say, “I’m never doing that again.” Before long, you find yourself saying, “When can I do it again.”


11 thoughts on “Why Do We Run Marathons?

  1. Jill Rector

    Thanks for a great post. I could not agree more. I just ran Chicago as well and had thought the same thoughts as you and I struggled from mile 20 on. I am also taking a break from full marathons and going to concentrate on half marathons for a while. At least that is what I tell myself now, I said the same thing last year. LOL Running is a weird obsession isn’t it? Thanks for a great blog I enjoy reading it.


  2. Your race sounds eerily like mine–I cramped up and got nauseous about the same point that you did. But I finished, surpassing my B goal and giving myself a huge mental victory. I was ecstatic when I crossed that finish line! Did you know only 37,000 of the 45,000 runners finished on Sunday? That’s pretty low!

    Why do we run marathons? I run them for the mental toughness that I continue work on. Sunday’s race was a huge win for me. I haven’t stopped smiling because I never quit.



  3. Felicia Para

    I felt like I was reading my summary of the marathon on Sunday as well. At mile 14 I felt like I was going to die. But like you, I walked through the water stations and that helped tremendously. Great job and great post! 🙂


  4. 50in50marathonquest

    Congratulations on a great race and awesome recap…i haven’t put together a detailed summary yet, just a rough timeline that mostly pokes fun at myself before I forget everything! I think I keep going back to the marathon for the challenge, accomplishment, and the feeling of being able to push myself mentally and physically through such a tough event – and it’s not just race day…it’s the weeks of discipline and training needed to even get to the start line. Chicago was my fifth and despite having a great race by my standards, by mile 26 as usual I was questioning my sanity – especially since I’ve developed this grand idea to run one in every state! The pain already seems forgotten…yesterday, I bought the air tickets to our next race marathon, in Maui! Really enjoyed reading your summary and best of luck with all your future running!


  5. John Farrow

    This is SO much like my 2013 Chicago Marathon (except that it was my 7th). Went through the half feeling stringer than I ever had & then BOOM I crashed & burned abt mile 17. Still have no clue. But we persevere & there is always next time. Congratulations on finishing & best of luck in the future. (I was actually supposed to be out there with you this year but a pulled muscle made me think better of it).


  6. Melissa Barnard

    Congrats!!! My hubby and I loved the “Do Epic Shit” lady we saw at Fox Valley in Sept. I was having my worst marathon and told her that originally I thought I would do epic shit, but not anymore. She said, “You’re STILL doing epic shit right now!!”


  7. Rachel Innis

    Thanks for your post! I discovered it on Facebook through Hal Higdon’s page. It really struck a chord with me as I am trying to get out of my post marathon rut since running the Fox Valley marathon three weeks ago. I still love running. I still NEED running, but I’ve never been so disappointed with my performance before, and the fact that I can’t put my finger on exactly what went wrong has been driving me nuts. Your post reminded me of all the hours spent training, of how I am teaching my kids about being healthy by being active, and of my accomplishment, no matter what the final time was. Time for a new goal and time to move on. BTW, Big Sur was my first marathon in 2003! Would love to do it again someday, but there is nothing like the first time (not having a clue what it’s like to run a marathon, much less one with those hills) at Big Sur!


  8. Jonathan94002

    Nice post! I’ve just completed my 6th marathon at Portland. And, while I struggled with the last few miles, again, the sense of accomplishment after I finished is really unparalleled. There are definitely more marathons in my future. And, the reason that I give others, in addition to myself is exactly what you said here …”Running marathons gives me confidence and faith in myself that I can persevere. It primes me for the challenges that life has in store for me.”
    Thank you.


  9. Mark O'Sullivan

    Why do I run marathons? Because I can…..

    Great article thanks. Did you beat your 4.06?
    Not far away from sub 4 now. Great stuff!


  10. Ravi Malhan

    What an amazing writer ! I kept wondering is she a better writer or a better runner !! I finally think you are both !!

    I am a cancer patient and I get up and regularly train for a HM.

    Your phrase ” If I can do that, I can do this ” resonated deeply.

    People like you give me the courage to say ” I have cancer but I am not suffering ”

    Thanks for your brilliance .

    Indebted forever.


  11. M M

    I loved this, and like Wendy and Felicia, your summary is strangely like mine ……except I was put in a late corral that had me passing people through mile 18….exerting way too much energy. Miles 20-26 were a fight…and I had the dizziness and endless last mile you described. I run to test myself…to see what I am capable of, what I can endure and if I can even thrive in the challenge. I also run marathons because THIS challenge is limited and has an end. Many of the personal challenges I face can be for a lifetime. Conquering THIS challenge shows me that I can persevere through the life long challenges (especially as I lean on GOD). Thank you for sharing and helping me think and realize why I do this thing called the marathon!


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