NOTE: This post is marathon-specific because, well, that’s my life right now. But non-marathoners, don’t feel left out! This post is for you whether you train for half marathons, 5Ks, or simply to overcome injury. Enjoy!
What’s the big deal about running marathons, anyway?
Veterans and newbies alike point to the indescribable high of crossing the finish line after 26 miles of feeling like someone was taking a baseball bat to your legs, desperately wanting to give up but somehow digging deeper and finishing anyway. Or the exhilaration of a finish time by your name and a medal around your neck, the daze of blissful exhaustion and the flood of well-wishes and congratulations from friends and family, the screaming knowledge of I ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING!
What do all of these things have in common? They are all specific to the actual race. But is that really what it’s all about? Is a handful of hours on one day really the sole source of joy in the endeavor of becoming a marathoner?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly a big – the biggest – part of it. It’s automatic to point to these things when asked why we do this because that joy is the strongest, most exciting, and easiest to visualize and put into words. It is the reason that we give up countless hours of our free time and wear through numerous pair of shoes. Well, that and the fact that I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be out $100 in registration fees for nothing.
But with all that’s been on my mind lately in regards to my big time goals for this marathon and how I’ll find meaning in this race even if I don’t achieve them, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering – is crossing the finish line and achieving the goal really what it’s ALL about? Is that the only place that the joy comes from?
As I started chewing on these questions, I realized that the best way to understand them wasn’t by examining how I felt during training or even during the race but rather, how I felt in the aftermath.
Post-race blues. We’ve all been there: wishing you could relive that magical day, rewinding your memory to the moment you crossed the finish line over and over like it’s your favorite childhood VHS tape.
But I realized that it’s not just that moment I miss, it’s the anticipation. Knowing each day in training that I am slowly building toward something great. And then in the blink of an eye, the race is here and gone and my life has been gutted of the structure and routine of training and the unique joy of having something to look forward to.
I am in the best shape of my life training for a marathon. Then the marathon is over, and suddenly I have this incredible level of physical fitness I’ve built up but I don’t know what to do with it. Unless I go right back into marathon training, it just won’t be the same anymore. Olympic athletes talk about a similar feeling once their games are over. They are in the best shape of their lives for the Olympic games, and once that’s over…well sure, they will maintain their fitness and maybe look toward a new goal. But whatever that new goal is….it’s not the Olympics, you know?
All this tells me yes, there is something more than the feeling of crossing the finish line or smashing a goal time. The anticipation, whipping myself into awesome shape – it all means something. And that’s when I realized – the joy is in the work. Yes, that’s right. WORK. W-O-R-K.
In her bestselling book The Happiness Project, author Gretchen Rubin comes to a conclusion that has always stuck with me: “Happiness doesn’t always feel happy.” The best example of this is parenting. Parents will say that having children is the greatest joy of their lives. But do you think they are feeling joy and happiness when they are changing diapers and dealing with a toddler meltdown in aisle 5? Rather, the joy they speak of is like an invisible haze they live in – you can’t see it or smell it but you always know it’s there. Well, that’s what I mean when I say the joy is in the work.
The evidence is around me now, when I plow through an assignment for work or draft up a blog post, and in my childhood memories of writing stories about cheetahs and parrots and gemstones, creating waxy crayon masterpieces in art class, and building gleaming Lego skyscrapers. Sure, the satisfaction of completion and victory always get the lion’s share of the joy, then and now. But the whole process feels good. Every step of the way I can visibly see progress. I relished that feeling of building toward something with every word on in the paragraph, every Crayola hue sweeping across the coloring book page, every little red Lego settling into place with a definitive snap. There is a joy in the anticipation, in putting in effort and seeing results come to life before your eyes.
Meb Keflezighi said, “Long-distance running is not the sport for people who crave instant gratification.” Perhaps this is our little secret, that many of our peers who sign up for races because they want the thrill of the finish line but don’t follow through because they don’t want to do the actual work of training, will never know – that the real joy is in the last place we’d expect to find it. The work. The sweat, the soreness, racking up of mile after mile, saying no to that 2nd or 3rd beer the night before a long run, hearing your alarm go off on a Saturday morning at an hour you’re pretty sure you’ve never actually been awake before.
Because even when it hurts, you can see yourself building, growing, progressing.
Maybe the finish line isn’t the whole sundae – it’s just the colored sprinkles on top.