Through the Darkness

If you want to call yourself a marathon runner, one thing is certain: you’re going to suffer for it.

Suffering just comes with the territory. It’s part of the deal that you sign up for when you choose to take on this particular event. And it doesn’t matter how fast you are. To some degree or another, everybody – from the 5-minute milers to the 15-minute milers - goes through an extremely difficult stretch sometime during the marathon. If you are working hard and pushing your limits, you are bound to suffer.

At Big Sur, it’s no surprise that most people run into trouble at the same part of the course – miles 21-23 through Carmel Highlands. It’s a backbreaking stretch of rolling hills that can completely demoralize the best of runners. It’s the place where inner demons emerge, and our bodies cry out against the pain we inflict upon them to continue onward.

We’ve both had stretches through the Highlands when it feels like we can barely keep our legs moving. Sometimes, we give ourselves a visible target to reach before stopping for a walking break: just make it to the next cone, the next telephone pole, the base of the next hill. The marathon becomes a continuous series of 50-yard efforts, and it’s all we can do to move from one to another.

Runners often call it “the wall”, but it’s also like entering a long, dark tunnel, where all of the bright, pleasant reasons you had for doing the marathon are blocked from your mind. Your focus becomes isolated on all of the negative signals your body is sending to the rational side of your brain. The only way through the darkness is to keep moving forward, and the only person who can get you there is you.

Again, this happens to virtually everyone. At Big Sur, the two of us have nearly killed ourselves on that road. We’ve run when our feet became torn up, our calves and quads were on fire, our stomachs were cramping, and it felt like our legs were made of lead. And to various degrees, on race day, three thousand other people were doing the exact same thing. For some runners it’s only a temporary slowdown; for others, it’s a complete collapse.

Yet somehow, we figure out a way to will our bodies onward, and eventually cross the finish line just like we knew we would all along.

Then a curious thing happens: in the aftermath, runners often talk about how disappointed they are to have succumbed to hopelessness and despair during those dark miles, even if they only faltered to a slight degree. But honestly, it’s pointless to question it.

Because the real question should be, why wouldn’t somebody’s thoughts turn a bit negative under these circumstances? We can’t imagine somebody going through similar conditions and being able to completely block out all of those physical alarms.

It’s almost like a chicken-and-egg scenario: do our thoughts turn bad because we are struggling physically, or do we struggle because we lose our psychological focus?

The most sensible answer goes something like this: our physical training before the race prepares our bodies to carry us through the most difficult stretches of a marathon. The better our training is, the more efficiently we’ll get through those dark miles (i.e., without losing too much time). But that doesn’t mean we won’t encounter self-doubt or other mental anguish along the way. That particular obstacle is unavoidable, no matter how well-conditioned someone is.

But here’s the funny part: going through that darkness is the part of the marathon that many runners appreciate the most.

Those of us who are hooked on this sport know that there is nothing more rewarding than working our bodies to the brink of failure and staring down our inner demons, then somehow pulling ourselves through to emerge triumphantly on the other side. Some finishers will tell you they don’t even know how they get through those critical patches, yet they always find a way.

And every time we go through that fire, we gain a self-appreciation and self-respect that is (as MasterCard would say) truly priceless. What’s more, we’re thankful for the hardships that helped us earn such awareness, because it’s not so easy to find in our everyday lives. Many people become addicted to the feeling, and start looking for another race to renew the fight all over again.

Those people are called marathoners.


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