What it feels like to run long distances

Toeing the line of long race is one of those unique experiences that not many people ever get to enjoy.  The event may have started the day prior with a pre-race dinner and a race brief.  This is usually the first time you get to check out the competition.  People lounging around with impressive belt buckles and shirts sporting the name of their craziest race like “Badwater” or “Leadville”.  In another sport this might be an attempt to intimidate the competition, but often I find myself doing this just to feel like I belong.  As if to say, “Yes, I’m one of you.”  The morning of, I chat it up with people I met the night before and we spend some time sharing brief war stories from other races.  Before the start of a long race, there’s always a bit of nerves.  Countless pee breaks between conversation with the inevitable race looming ahead.  The uncertainty of whether you’ll get injured or start throwing up, or end up dropping out for any number of reasons.  For me, I try to shut it out and focus on the things I can immediately control.  Getting coffee, relieving the bladder.  If I think too much about the shear enormity of it, I’ll be overwhelmed.  This is a feeling which pervades most of the race.

Finally, after a bit a waiting, the race will begin.  Usually, the front of the pack shoots out and I’m tempted to keep pace with them.  This lead pack is usually a mix of very experienced, fast runners, and people that get caught up in the excitement.  I must admit it is very tempting to burst out of the gates and run with abandon during the first quarter of the race, but I’ve done that, and ended up barely able to walk by mile 40.  To avoid the over-zealousness of the start, I pick someone that will run a conservative pace the first leg and try to stay with them.

So what am I thinking about?  I’m thinking about anything but what I’m trying to do.  I talk to people, look at the scenery, watch my feet, pray.  Anything to not focus on how many miles I have left to run.  I used to have this annoying habit of calculating my pace and predicted finish time at every aide station.  It still pops into my head as I pass certain mile markers in a race.  I discovered pretty early on this can lead to disaster.  Everything seems encouraging until mile ~60 when you try to figure out the math and your fatigued/sleep deprived mind come up with an absurd figure, “Oh, I need to average a 6 minute pace for the next 40 miles to finish.”  The math never works out the second half of the race.  So instead I try to distract myself.  Distract myself from the soreness, chaffing, the mad calculations, the fact that I still have over a marathon to run and I’m exhausted.

The entire adventure seems impossible until about the 75 mile mark.  That’s the first point that I actually feel like I might be able to finish the race.  At this point the mind is swimming between optimistic, “That beer is going to be delicious at the finish.” and despair “I can barely even walk this stretch.  I’m never going to finish.  I’m a terrible husband and father for being out here.”  I try to keep moving forward.

Eventually I get to within 10 miles of the finish.  At this point I am either an emotional basket case with tears and despair, or I am furious.  I prefer the rage.  I begin thinking of all the things that piss me off from the absurdly rocky section 20 miles ago, to the dish soap flavored hammer products at the aide stations.  The madder I get, the better, because that anger overrides the pain and I can sometimes even run the last 10 miles.

It’s difficult to really put into words just how you feel at the finish line.  Relief from not having to run anymore, exhausted, ecstatic.  I think every emotion I’ve experienced in life comes in waves, and they pass over and around me until I drift to sleep.  It won’t really set in for a few days just what I managed to accomplish, but for now, it’s enough to be done.

2 thoughts on “What it feels like to run long distances”

  1. I learned of your web project from a mutual friend.

    My activity is road bicycling and I’ve experienced a phenomena that I can’t explain but am hoping you can offer insight. I can begin a day of cycling intent on doing about 40 to 50 miles and end up doing 120 to 150. The strange thing I experience is this: the first 20 miles seem a lot harder than the last 20. In fact, it’s not unusual that after biking more than 120+ miles I feel like I could keep going for another 40 with no problem, and there is usually a desire to keep going too. (If it were not for my tight schedule I’d almost always opt to keep going.) I’m untrained in the science of this hence my question: what makes this happen?

    A few facts: I keep myself hydrated at all times using plain tap water. I will typically stop for a relaxing lunch where I’ll usually have a couple of diet colas, a large bowl of whatever the soup of the day is and a bag of chips. My rides usually begin around mid-morning and could last until nightfall if I decide to go that long. I don’t bother getting on my bicycle unless I can do at least 20 miles. Most weeks I’ll bike at least 4 days. These rides tend to be 25, 40, 50 and 100+ mile events. I tend to do more than 200 miles of cycling per week.

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