What Does It Feel Like To Run A Marathon?

Did you know that marathon runners are not allowed within 50 yards of a Church building? That’s because, according to the papacy, marathon runners are said to be possessed by demons. We aren’t kidding.

What else could explain the insanity they must surely be overcome with that causes them to willingly put that much strain on their body for a small piece of metal? 

In all seriousness, it’s unlikely that poltergeists and demons actually possess marathon runners. However, it does take a certain mindset – a combination of mad determination and insane willpower – to partake in a marathon, let alone finish one. What does it feel like to run a marathon?

From the outside, running a marathon may seem simple. But what’s that saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes? How about you try running, and instead of one mile, make it 26.2?

In this article, that’s what we’re going to explore. We’re going to take you into the mind and body of a marathon runner, and you’ll get to experience all the highs and lows of running a marathon, all without ever having to get up off the couch.

Unless you want to, in which case, you’ll know exactly what to expect. Ready, set, go!

Preparing Mind and Body For a Marathon

What does it feel like to run a marathon?

Before you actually run that first marathon, how are you going to feel?

The first word that comes to mind is busy.

Busy because there’s a LOT of preparation before (and during) the big day.

While we couldn’t go so far as to call running a sport (at least, not in the traditional sense), marathoning requires just the same amount of preparation and practice as the average football game, if not more. 

For starters, training for a marathon requires not only strengthening your body but your mind as well. You’d be surprised how running for 26.2 miles at a time can take a toll on your mental well-being, and marathon runners have kept therapists in business since Pheidippides first made the long run from Marathon to Sparta. We reckon the mental wellness industry in Ancient Greece was booming.

All of this begs the question: how do marathon runners prepare for their races? The answers may surprise you.

Step 1: Potty-Training

Indeed, training for a marathon begins in childhood, when you sit down on the plastic potty that’s been in your family for generations. Training your bowels is integral to completing a marathon. It may be acceptable to “make an oopsie” in everyday life, but doing so in the middle of a race is just no good.

Jokes aside, we felt it was important to start with this point because so many first-time marathoners don’t come prepared. On race day, the last thing you want to do as a runner is stand in a long line at the only porta-potty available.

Moreover, exerting your body that much will make you feel bad enough as it is without the sudden onset of mid-race diarrhea. 

To avoid this, it’s recommended that you do your business at home before you arrive at the starting location. It also helps to run through a mock version of the race day. For example, if the marathon begins at 6 AM and you need to wake up at 3 AM to arrive on time, practice getting up and running through all the motions. This way, your bowels will be suitably emptied, and you can focus all your energy on running.

There’s no worse feeling on Marathon Day than that dreaded “I need to find a toilet” feeling, but you’d be amazed how many first time runners don’t prepare for this plight!

Portaloo on marathon route
Where race day dreams of a Personal Best go to die…

Step 2: Extensive Training

In addition to ensuring that you don’t have any accidents during the race, you’ll also need to ensure that your body can handle the strain of running a marathon. 

As you can imagine, training for a marathon involves a fair bit of running, but you’ll also want to ensure that your body is sufficiently limber. In the months leading up to a marathon, you’ll need to stretch every day to strengthen your muscles. The second last thing you want is to pull a hammy in the middle of a race (for the last thing you want to happen, see the point above). 

In the weeks leading up to the marathon, your body should already be able to handle the strain. At this point, it’s good to start running through a mock version of race day.

While you shouldn’t tire yourself out completely, practice getting up early, eating a full breakfast, emptying your bowels, and running. You won’t run a full marathon in your training, most likely, but the pre-run steps should still be the same. By race day, you should already be an adept distance runner.

You should be feeling confident that you can complete the race distance, even if you’ve never raced a full marathon before.

Step 3: Pre-Race Routine

Of course, preparation is only half the battle. Running the marathon is another beast entirely, and despite your best efforts, you may still feel completely unprepared. 

Rest assured that every marathoner has felt this way at some point or another. Even veterans may still be prone to pre-race jitters. Unfortunately, there’s no cure for this.

To better cope with these pre-race jitters, many runners have some sort of small ritual they perform before the race begins. This could take the form of prayer, stretching right up until that gun goes off, or even screaming at the sky. Often, runners seek some sort of release of tension, and we have faith that you’ll find yours too. 

And then, the only thing left to do is run the marathon…

Running The Race: How Does A Marathon Feel?

Running a marathon can often feel like moving through the five stages of grief in quick succession and random order.

Everyone copes with it differently, but there are several emotions that every runner has had to deal with at some point or another. These feelings roughly correlate to specific stages in a marathon, which is great news for the structure of this article. 😉

Stage 1: The First Few Miles 

The beginning of a marathon is likely when you’ll feel your best, but rest assured; it only gets worse from here. 

Once the clock strikes “GO,” you may be tempted to ditch your pacing guide and gun it as fast as you can. This is not a good idea. Many first-time marathoners make the mistake of exhausting themselves too early to finish the race.

We can’t blame them, however, because, in addition to feeling your best physically at the start of the race, you’ll most likely also feel great mentally. The first few miles are marked by a feeling of godliness, especially if you make the mistake of going too fast too quickly. At this point, you may begin to suffer from a painful affliction known as “Big-Head Syndrome,” and its effects are devastating, but you only feel them later. 

Eventually, the strain of the race starts to set in after the first few miles. It’s at this point that you cross the threshold into Stage 2.

Stage 2: Running In A Straight Line To Oblivion 

How does it feel to run a marathon?
Hitting “The Wall” in a marathon. Hello Darkness, sweet friend.

That subtitle is not misleading. The middle of a marathon is probably the worst stage for first-time marathon runners and veterans alike. It’s too late to turn back and too early to call it quits. At this point, all you can do is keep going.

Here’s where things start to really hurt.

Runner’s trot is a common vexation experienced by many marathoners. You’ll know it when you feel it. It’s marked by “gastrointestinal distress,” or as we like to call it, a runny tummy. The problem is that, depending on the marathon, you won’t always be able to answer nature’s call in a civilized way. Even if there are stops available, you won’t want to spend too much time going to the loo, lest all the other participants leave you behind.

Fortunately, runner’s trot can be avoided by training your bowel movements (as mentioned previously) and through a proper training routine and nutrition plan. Remember: Don’t try anything new on race day. Always go with tried-and-trusted foods. And don’t even think about running a marathon without eating as a compromise.

Unfortunately, an upset stomach isn’t the only thing you might have to contend with.

Nipple chafe is a reality that almost every marathoner has faced. Even the mightiest runner blazing the trail set out by Hermes himself has likely cried like a baby because of the horrible chafing. Fortunately, nipple guards and certain creams can help you avoid the worst of it, but expect to be applying cream to your nipples for a few days after the marathon.

God bless you, Vaseline.

Finally, if these physical ailments weren’t enough to deal with, the middle of a marathon is also when troubles of the mind start creeping in. You may feel as though it’s impossible to finish the marathon, that you were a fool even to attempt it in the first place. You may also feel a strong urge to simply lie down and drift into oblivion or find the nearest bed and sleep for a few days. “L’appel du vide” – the call of the void.

Assuming you haven’t given up yet, you’re about to crest that hill and begin the final stretch of the race… C’mon, you can do it!

Stage 3: The Final Stretch

Just as all the light in the world seems to go out, behold, a bright, gleaming beam from the heavens shines out! Of course, you’re probably just hallucinating at this point, but the effect remains the same.

Once you begin that final third of the race, you may feel broken in mind and body. However, if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will cross that finish line.

At this point, you may feel a sudden burst of determination, a drive you never knew existed within you. Against all odds, you feel more powerful than ever (start-line big-headedness included), which will be just enough to carry you to the end of the race. Through chafed nipples, an upset stomach, and an insurmountable sense of futility, you’ve made it this far. 

And there it is…

How Does It Feel To Finish A Marathon?

Like victory.

Crossing over that finish line begets a mixture of emotions – elation, catharsis, exhaustion, and maybe even a sudden urge to sob.

It’s a feeling that must be experienced to be understood. Think about the worst time in your life and what it felt like to make it through – finishing a marathon is at least 100 times better than that. If you understand that, you can understand why people do marathons in the first place.

It’s not all about the time — although for many, a good time is important too — but the sense of achievement.

Ready To Give It A Try?

If you’ve read everything and still feel determined to run a marathon, we recommend you visit a health professional to see that you are physically and mentally up for the challenge. 

However, if reading this has made you more apprehensive about competing in a marathon, don’t worry. Doubt is an integral part of the process, and it makes overcoming the challenge so much sweeter. Just make sure you vacate your bowels beforehand.

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Thalia Oosthuizen

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Thalia started running during the the pandemic as a way of getting out of the house. The running bug bit, and now much of her life revolves around everything to do with running - videos, podcasts, studies, books, articles, and interviews. She's also done several courses on running nutrition and mechanics to aid in her training and advising others.
Thalia Oosthuizen

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