The 6 Stages Of Running A Marathon And How They Correspond To Your Life

by Meredith Baker

“Life’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon” was one of the first signs I saw as I started running the LA Marathon a few weeks ago.

This saying got me thinking (and I had more than four hours worth of thinking ahead of me) about how the different stages of a marathon, in many ways, parallel life’s journeys.

The Starting Line

Whenever we enter a new chapter of life, whether it’s a new job or a relationship, we take off sprinting — excited to meet new people and have new experiences. We’re excited for how the journey will undoubtedly change us for the better and we’re excited to get there as fast as we can.

We often make the mistake of trying to get to the destination or finish line quickly, which can end up biting us in the butt sooner than we many think. This happened to me in both past relationships and past marathons.

In the relationship sense, I was so excited about how I connected with the person and what we could potentially achieve together that I lost sight of enjoying the journey and the beautiful fact that our paths crossed in the first place. This eagerness gave the relationship more speed in the beginning, but consequently, wore it out sooner.

During my first marathon, the San Francisco Nike Women’s Marathon, I was dead-set on getting my sub-four-hour time that I not only lost sight of the magic of the starting line energy, but by mile eight, I wanted to pass out into a bed of clouds and painkillers.

This time, I decided to enjoy the race as one long parade and I soaked in the excitement of the runners huddled together at Dodger Stadium about to embark on 26.2 miles of suffering, chaffing and victory. I put on Katy Perry’s “Firework” for dramatic effect and took off with a spring in my step (until I realized the first mile would be a human traffic jam to rival the 405 at rush hour).

Mile Six

Okay, I am about at a 10K right now. When I did my first 10K, I thought it was a HUGE accomplishment. Now it feels like nothing. How far I’ve come! Oh crap, wait. That means I still have 20 miles to go… never mind.

In life, we can choose to view the road ahead as insurmountable or as a sign of progress distant from the start. In past marathons, the 10K mark was a slap in the face. Thankfully, for this race, I was taking my journey with a light heart and light steps, looking forward to what the next 20 miles had in store for me while learning more about the layout and different neighborhoods of LA, a city to which I had just moved the month before.

Miles six and seven took me through Echo Park and Silver Lake, two areas that I vowed to revisit at a later date.

Half Marathon Point

Time for an energy goo. Looks like I haven’t met my 1:45 half-split time, which means I have to pick up my pace and run a 7:20 mile for the next 13 miles to qualify for Boston. Screw it.

In the past, I was so anal about my time that I calculated how long I could spend at water stops to still make my desired PB (personal best, not to be confused with my favorite spread). Watching the clock constantly was distracting and stressed me out. This time, I used the halfway point to "check in" with myself and make sure I was being good to my body (e.g. hydration, stretching, goo).

I slowed down and took time to high-five little kids who held their hands out along the course, to appreciate funny signs (top ones include: “Nice Ass,” “May the Course Be With You,” and “Hey Girl, Ryan Gosling is waiting for you at the finish line”… the last one being a cruel, cruel joke) and to soak in the sight of being in a sea of runners separately and collectively pacing through a winding Sunset Blvd.

It was also remarkable to consider the thousands of spectators who woke up early to cheer for the runners (and to whomever was passing out tongue depressors with Vaseline on them, I can’t thank you enough). We sometimes fail to appreciate the people around us — friends and strangers alike — who go out of their way to lift us up in times of need.

Mile 18

At mile 18, Jedi mind tricks on myself I start playing. By this point, I had already used the “glass half full” strategy and now, when I want to congratulate myself for running five more miles since the halfway point, I redo the math and realize I still have eight more to go. I am not feeling completely dead — yet.

I start to dig up dusty memories from my past to distract and entertain myself for the next few miles. I reminisce about my first kiss, the person I was when I started college, and how I was sent to the principal’s office in kindergarten for sticking gum in a boy’s hair (to be fair, he stuck the same piece of gum on my elbow, first).

Usually, these memories are induced by some 90s throwback songs, like “Wannabe” or “Semi-Charmed Life,” and do a good job at taking my mind away from my achy joints or the fact that I haven’t seen a porta-potty in a while.

I guess my life “lesson” at mile 18 is that it is sometimes good to pause and reflect on old memories and experiences that shaped you in unexpected ways. Thinking about how far I had come, in spite of how far I had left to go, reminded me of a part of myself I had all but forgotten. I was also reminded that “Semi-Charmed Life” is an amazing and timeless song and made a note to myself to add it to my "Traffic Jams" car playlist after the race.

I want something else to get me through this semi-charmed kind of race...

Mile 22

This marker is also known as “The Wall.” At mile 22, all bets are off. I don’t care that I look like I have rabies from the foamy layer of salt around my lips. I don’t care that I parked my car illegally near the starting line. I just want to finish, dammit.

Or do I even want to finish? What if I silently dropped out and told my friends that I finished? I guess I shouldn’t have posted a status with my bib number so friends could track my progress after all.

At The Wall, the pain smacks us and it is merciless. But, what I actually love about mile 22 is the idea that we challenge ourselves and see how strong our spirits are when we are at our weakest. It is like the idea that a heart that has been broken can now be more open than ever before.

During the Alaska Marathon in Anchorage, I saw a guy propose to his girlfriend at mile 22. She was running next to me and looked like she was truly suffering until she started seeing the signs -- “Will…” “You...” “Marry...” “Me?” -- and increasingly picked up her pace until she ran into her boyfriend’s arms and gave him a sweaty kiss and a big YES (cheesy, but I swear it’s true).

I wondered what was going through his mind to propose when she was at such an emotionally and physically exhausted state. At mile 22, I would’ve much preferred a deep tissue massage to a ring. Then I thought, “Well, if she says yes at her worst (so to speak) and if he can be there to lift her up, then this bodes well for a strong and durable marriage.”

At The Wall, I begin to reflect on the difficult things that I have overcome and how I am now stronger because of them. In fact, they have been critical stepping stones in my personal development and my life’s course.

The Wall is an amazing reminder that the biggest triumphs may follow the biggest hardships. The struggle one has to go through makes approaching the finish line that much more rewarding in the end. A sign I saw at mile 22 pretty much sums it up:

“Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.”

When you hit rock bottom, there is nowhere to go but up. With that, I put on Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” and pressed onwards down San Vicente Boulevard into Brentwood.

The Last .2 Miles Of The Race

The finish line is in sight and we get light-headed with an overwhelming feeling of pride, accomplishment, exhaustion and adrenaline all at once. I feel a tingle down my spine and goosebumps on my arms as the memories of long, early-morning runs, days of soreness and training blisters come back in a rush of nostalgia.

Together, we exchange knowing looks of appreciation with our fellow marathoners and, in one of those rare moments, we are fully present in the here and now. There is nowhere else we would rather be than on the racecourse sprinting (or at least it feels like that) to the finish line.

This time, Michael Franti’s “I’m Alive” came on as I entered the last stretch of the race. It gave me such a second wind that I darted from the right side of Ocean Avenue where the runners were to the left side of the road, where the spectators were lined up. A little boy stuck out his hand for a high-five and it created a domino effect of high-fives that carried me to an epic finish line.

People often ask me why I run marathons. I must be crazy, right? Well yes, probably a little bit. However, I actually love marathons because of the awesome finisher’s t-shirts and most importantly, I love being surrounded by other people (the other runners and spectators) who want to push themselves past their limits, too.

At the end of the race, when I am in pain or thinking about giving up, so is the person next to me, and incredibly, we lift each other up and see to it that we both reach our goals.

This idea could not have been more beautifully expressed than in the solidarity and support the runners and spectators showed last year after the Boston Marathon bombings, and similarly when the NYC marathon was canceled because of Hurricane Sandy; people who would have run the marathon spent the day volunteering in neighborhoods affected by the storm.

As in life, we are put here to give each other strength in times of weakness and to share in each other’s successes. Running a marathon is undoubtedly a personal achievement, but my favorite memories and best energy come from the friends with whom I have run, the people I love waiting for me at the finish line and the spectators and runners with whom I crossed paths and fist-pumped along the way.

We are all in this race together and no matter how fast we get there, we all cross the same finish line.

Photo credit: Shutterstock