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How to Gut Out the Final Miles of a Marathon

by Samantha Peale

Whether you diligently cranked out multiple 20+ mile runs, endured hill repeats and weekly track workouts, or you trained shoddily, missed the final long run due to a hangover and never once experienced oxygen debt, after about mile 19 of the actual race, you will have to force your body to keep moving when all reason tells you to stop. But assuming a medical doctor has cleared you of major risks from heart disease, you’re good to go, never mind how miserable you’ve been since mile 4.

1. Your family, your acupuncturist, and your less athletic friends will tell you to walk if you feel any serious pain during the race. There is always someone to tell the marathoner to play it safe. You might get injured. You might not be able to run a second marathon this year, or a second marathon ever. Do not think about these non-marathoners when you are gutting out your final miles. They are your enemies. They love you and want to protect your skeleton, but they will not help you get to the finish line, and that is where you are headed.

2. Remember your high school track coach, or your sister’s high school track coach, the eccentric masters miler who said if you weren’t puking or heaving at the end you didn’t run your hardest? Think about her. She was awesome.

3. Do not articulate what ails you. Your IT bands, your lower back, your quads, hams, the balls of your feet, your plantars fasciae. You may as well say goodbye to a few toenails. They will turn purple from blood blisters, dry up, and fall out in a few months. Keep them as trophies! Think about the shooting pains and dull aches later because it’s a waste of energy to describe them during the race. Never complain out loud. No one on the course wants to hear you groaning.

4. When deep fatigue sets in, picture yourself running. As long as you can train your eye on this idealized image, your body will imitate it. Return to this image over and over again.

5. Find kinship with an inspiring athlete. Lebron James, Wu Minxia and Hi Zu, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the kidney donor you saw at the last water stop – can you conceive of the pains they have overcome? The Kinesio Tex tape, the surgeries, the trash-talking public. I like to think of all the miles Joan Benoit-Samuelson has run in snowy Maine. The lonely roads, the houses with icicles hanging from eaves, the neatly shoveled driveways, the spruces and pines, the bare ashes and oaks. All the tangents Benoit-Samuelson didn’t cut during training add up to many miles if laid end to end. She won the inaugural Olympic Marathon for women in 1984 and ran Boston in 2:51 twenty-seven years later, at age 53. When I pick off the later miles, I am closer to Joan Benoit-Samuelson than to, say, my friends who are at home snacking and surfing the internet.

6. Find your metaphor. A red tailed hawk, a tractor mower, a soccer ball in play– each could make short work of the marathon distance. One summer I saw three gray wolves running in the north woods of Wisconsin. They hardly touched the ground as they soared across the road. Think of the miles you could run if you hardly touched the ground. I like the old man in Hemingway’s novella. Out on the sea for two days, now with an eighteen-foot marlin tied to the side of my skiff, I ride the trade winds into port, harpooning sharks that smell the blood of my catch, the biggest catch of my life.

7. Use your arms. Don’t let your style get rank just because you have been running for two or three or four or five hours. Run one entire mile concentrating on swinging your arms efficiently. Let the rhythm propel you forward.

8. Welcome each mile marker as you pass by and bid it adieu. You are done with that damned mile forever. Spit on that mile marker.

9. Do you need to use a Port-O-John? To avoid dehydration you should take a sip of water or sports drink every mile, but do you really want to stop, likely wait in line, and risk cramping up? You do not. Pee in your shorts.

10. Extend and mix your metaphors. To avoid thoughts of tile floors, the pleasures of chewing and guzzling, and how good it will feel to lay on my couch, maybe watch a couple of Hitchcocks back to back or relive the drama of my race, I imagine more sharks. A trail of sharks between my wooden skiff and the lights of Havana. I have to beat off each one with my short-handled club. I am the old man, the marlin, the skiff, the sharks, the club, and la mer.

11. The finish line is towering and bright and there is a massive, chest-thumping PA system that blares a song that has annoyed you since the 1980’s, but now makes your eyes well up. Perhaps you have family and friends watching for you, but really, you are alone. Your bleeding feet, your chaffed armpits, and your hypothermia versus time itself. Pick your knees up a little higher because you are being photographed for posterity and you don’t want to look like a slouch. You are no slouch! Club a final shark. A mylar blanket, a small bottle of water, a banana, and a finisher’s medal are one last surge away. Most of the physical agony ends the moment you stop running. Later, you can submerge your body in an ice bath and spend a week going down stairs backwards, if needs must. Now, you have forged a stunning path for yourself and it is a great beginning.

Filed under how-to athletics marathons running determination