A thought starter: what do you think about when running a marathon?

Someone I know has recently signed up to run their first marathon. Since I’m now a veteran of two of the things, he suggested he might have a few questions to ask. And one of them got me thinking: what do you talk to yourself about when you’re in the late stages of a marathon? Hmmm, good question…

There’s a reason why marathon running is considered a mental challenge as well as a not inconsiderable one. Whether it’s during a long training run or in a race, you’re likely to be left to your own devices and thoughts. Of course, in a big city marathon you’re likely to be surrounded by plenty of other runners and a load of spectators – but unless you have a friend running alongside you, your journey from start to finish is an individual one. Which leaves quite a bit of thinking time.

So what do you think about when running a marathon? Frankly, I have no idea. What I do have an idea about is what I thought about when running a marathon.

Now, it’s now like I stopped down to note every single thought I had during a 3h 16m 40s run around Houston. That would be silly. And running a marathon is a pretty overwhelming experience, so sometimes I likely just zoned out and now can’t really remember what I was thinking.

But I tried to think back and remember what I talked to myself about during the race, and then grouped them into some key subject areas. I then guesstimated roughly how long I spent thinking about each area. And, for ease of presentation, I used that to create an entirely unscientific (and, since it’s highly possible my memory is playing tricks on me, possibly entirely inaccurate) pie chart. Because of course I did.

marathon-pie

Let’s delve into the segments a bit.

Race pace and strategy: Pretty obvious stuff. I spent a lot of time staring at my average lap pace on my Garmin trying to work out if I was going too fast, too slow or just about right. In the early stages, this also includes trying to work out when my legs would start aching. More about that in a bit.

Hydration and refuelling: Another thought occupier, especially given the Texan humidity. Trying to think about how often to eat and drink – and how to actually get the drink from cup into my mouth – was a real focus.

Enjoying the crowds and other runners: When I wanted to distract myself from my pacing or hydration strategies, I’d try to take in the crowds, both on and off the course. After all, taking all of that in one of the truly amazing opportunities you get running a marathon…

Taking in the scenery: …and this is another one. Sure, you can visit a city, drive and walk all around it and take in all the districts and sights. But you’ll never see it in quite the same way you do while running a marathon.

Thinking about family and friends: Would my mum, niece, nephew, sister-in-law and her family get to the finish? How was my brother faring on the half marathon? I talked to myself about those questions quite a bit. Plus, as previously explained, every time I crossed a timing mat I’d end up thinking about the various people I knew who’d be tracking my run. Family and friends are good motivation.

Considering post-race dining options: I’ve explained this before as well. If you want to distract yourself from aches, pains and fears while running a marathon, I thoroughly recommend thinking about food. Mmmmmmm, food.

OUCH!: There’s no getting around this. At some point in the late stages of a marathon, it’s going to start hurting. And no matter how much you try to deny it, talk to yourself, or attempt to distract yourself by visualising peaceful mountains, you’re going to feel the pain. I’m actually remarkably pleased by how little time I spent thinking about being in pain on Houston. On the London Marathon, when I struggled far more in the latter stages, this figure would have been a lot high. Like, lots and lots higher.

Do I need to go to the toilet?: Having to stop to go to the toilet would have ruined my time. But at various points, I felt like I needed the toilet.  Of course I did, because I drank loads of water pre-race to hydrate. I held off but, let’s be honest, the harder you try not to think about going to the toilet, the more you think you need to go to the toilet.

Right, so all that’s left to consider is the category I called ‘random other thoughts’. Basically, this category comprised anything else that popped into and out of my head during that run. There’s no way I can list, or even remember, every thought that passed through my head during the marathon. Here are a few I can just about remember:

  • Trying to remember the lyrics to Come on Eileen
  • Wondering how many British runners were taking part in the Houston Marathon (There were 11 British finishers, if you were wondering. I was the fourth)
  • Thinking if there was anything else American I needed to buy before flying back to the UK (no, which was just as well given how heavy my suitcase proved to be…)
  • Humming the ‘woah, we’re halfway there’  bit of Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer bit, on the approach to the halfway point
  • Work. Yes, actual work (this may sound above and beyond the call of duty, but I do some of my best job-based thinking while running…)
  • Contemplating whether the Vancouver Canucks will make the NHL playoffs this year
  • Trying to count how many fast food restaurants I passed on the route (lost count, sorry)
  • Pondering how the good people of Houston were coping after the Texans were knocked out of the NFL Playoffs
  • Picturing what I’d be doing on a January Sunday in Richmond-upon-Thames if I wasn’t running a marathon in Houston
  • Deciding on my favourite Paw Patrol member (I may have been hanging around with my four-year-old nephew in the build-up to the marathon… Oh, and it’s Rubble, since you asked)

Random, right? Yup. But I reckon it’s all part of the marathon coping strategy: you try to think as little as possible about the pain. To do that, you focus as much on your race strategy (pace and hydration) as possible, while also making sure you remember why you’re running (the atmosphere and scenery, family and post-race food). And when all else fails, you just think about any old random shit.

Oh, there were two other things I realised I talked to myself about during the marathon…

  • Trying to convince myself I don’t want to run a third marathon…
  • …but realising I probably do

Shit.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: A spot of parkrun tourism… in Tooting | Atters Goes Running

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