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26 lessons
I learned running
26 miles

By Frances Carruthers

08.11.21

Fran ​ran the Manchester Marathon. She reflects on the 26 lessons she learned running the 26 miles - a lesson for each mile.

 

Like many, I stumbled across the finish line of the Manchester Marathon a few weeks ago. I was in floods of tears. They weren’t tears of joy or relief – they were tears of sheer physical pain. Having strained my iliotibial band - a long piece of connective tissue that runs along the outside of the leg from the hip to the knee - which made running absolute agony from about mile 20 onwards, I’d had to half-run, half-walk, half-ugly-cry my way through the last six miles.

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A mere 24 hours after running the Manchester Marathon, I found myself searching for the next marathon to sign up to. As delayed feelings of pride and accomplishment had finally flooded in, I’d simultaneously managed to blank out the excruciating pain this extreme physical challenge had caused me. What was behind this madness?

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It was then that I stumbled across an interesting piece of research. According to scientists at the Jagiellonian University in Poland, during marathon running our brains release a chemical called oxytocin, which dilutes the memory of pain – a similar effect to what happens when women give birth.

While I’m obviously not comparing the pain I felt running a marathon to what women endure in childbirth, the research seemed to highlight a broader pattern. Training for and competing in marathons involves repeatedly going through difficult sensations (discomfort, pain and boredom to name a few), for the sake of what? A medal at the end of it? Bragging rights? The ability to eat shedloads of pizza while carb-loading?

For most, motivations for marathon running probably involve all these things in some combination, but above all these ludicrous events have enduring appeal because they’re an accomplishment. A test of determination, willpower and sheer grit. A chance to show ourselves what we’re made of. In my case, I’ve wanted to run a marathon for as long as I can remember.

But whatever your “why”, if you want to run a marathon at some point in your life, there’s no better time than in your twenties. Not only is this when you’re in your prime – your aerobic capacity is at its highest and you’re likely to recover more quickly – but it’s also a great way to stave off the looming quarterlife crisis experienced by 75 per cent of us in our twenties.

Having a goal to aim for and a training plan to follow is a perfect remedy to the feelings of lostness and uncertainty that can come with being twenty-something, which, for many of us, have been compounded by the pandemic. Plus, with 13 per cent of Brits reporting that running helped them de-stress during lockdown, it’s clear the benefits go well beyond the physical.

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Having plucked up the courage to apply for the 2020 Manchester Marathon, which was delayed by 18 months due to Covid, I finally ran it on 10 October this year, two days after celebrating my 25th birthday.

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It contained all the sweat, tears and joy I'd expected – but there were plenty of surprises along the way too. From the euphoric highs of seeing my friends and family cheering me on, to the curse-out-loud pain that was the last six miles, I realised during those 26.2 miles that the event is about so much more than just the running.

Whether you're considering signing up for one or just want to marvel at the insanity of those who do, here are 26 unexpected things you'll learn through running a marathon – one for each mile of the race. 

The training

1. Balancing training with socialising might be a struggle at times; you'll learn the hard way that alcohol and long-distance running really don't mix.

2. But nothing beats waking up on a Sunday morning without a hangover.

3. You’ll come to appreciate the structure of training. Whether it’s a much-needed excuse to get out of the house on WFH days or a chance to process your thoughts, regular running does wonders for your head.

4. You’ll end up relishing the long runs. The opportunity to explore new areas, curate top-tier running playlists and eat limitless amounts of food afterwards? Sign. Me. UP.

5. You can’t wing it. Seriously. And anyone who says you can, is a fool. Or lying.

6. The maranoia is real. In the week before the race, your mind will be flooded with questions: have I trained enough? Have I caught a cold? Will I be able to do it?

7. But you’ve also got to just trust the process.

8. Carb loading is the BEST. (This involves increasing the glycogen stored in your body to fuel you on race day – by eating all the pizza, pasta and bread in the days beforehand. Need I say more?)

 

The big day

9. You’ll probably start too fast, like I did, and you’ll inevitably regret it later.

10. Nothing beats the thrill of the crowds. No matter how good your running playlist, you’ll want to unplug your headphones for at least some of the race just to soak it all in.

11. You’ll be amazed by the creativity of people’s signs. One of my personal favourites? “You’ve waited 18 months to run this. Don’t be shit”.

12. I hate to break it to you, but you won’t be the most impressive runner there. For much of the race, I was running alongside a guy who literally juggled the entire time. I didn’t see him drop a ball once.

13. It probably won’t go according to plan. Whether you get injured like I did or hit the dreaded wall, any number of things can (and probably will) go wrong on race day.

14. Seeing your friends and family cheering you on – especially nearer the end, when your energy is flagging and the, "Why the hell did I sign up for this?" thoughts are getting real – will make you feel a whole new level of gratitude for them.

15. You’ll never appreciate random strangers’ kindness more. (Special shoutout to the woman who pep-talked me into finishing those last three miles. You’re too good for this world.)

16. It’s true what they say, the last six miles really are the worst part of the race. Or indeed, your life so far…?

17. But you’ll never feel so mentally strong. Getting past that wall and being able to continue despite the negative thoughts takes a whole new level of grit and dedication.

18. You’ll feel pain in places you never thought you could feel pain. Hello, nipple chafe, my old friend…

19. Above all, the highs and lows of the race will be unlike anything you’ve experienced before.

 

After the race

20. You’ll never have an adrenaline rush like it. Whatever happened along the way, you’ve finally finished it – even if it didn’t go the way you wanted or meticulously planned for, you’re going to feel amazing.

21. You won’t be able to walk for at least a day afterwards. Clear your calendar: it’s time to get horizontal, order takeaway and binge-watch your favourite series.

22. You’ll want to sleep in your medal. And hey, why not? You’re a marathoner. Bask in it.

23. You’ll never want to shut up about it. (I still haven’t…)

24. You may need to see a physio. Injuries can sneak up on you during such a long run (I certainly hadn’t been expecting mine) and while physio can be expensive, it’s best to see a professional if you can, so you can recover quickly and get back into running.

25. Post marathon blues are a thing. Once the initial adrenaline rush has subsided you might start to feel a bit down. After all, you’ve just achieved that momentous goal you’ve been building up to for months – now what? It’s okay to feel a bit lost and deflated in the days, and even weeks, afterwards.

26. You’ll forget about the pain shortly afterwards, and probably sign up for another. No one said marathon runners were a sane bunch.

Image by the author.

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