There is a reason the marathon is 26.2 miles and not 20.
The marathon is designed to break you—your body, your resolve, your spirit. This calculated demolition takes place, of course, in the final leg of the race. Specifically, the final 10K. Because let’s face it, the first 20 miles of a marathon are a cakewalk (relatively speaking). They are polite and courteous. Almost pleasant. During the first 20 miles, you smile and wave and laugh at Chuck Norris signs and notice scenic vistas, like the fantastic slabs of concrete barriers stretching down Forest Park Parkway.
But something happens the moment you swig your first splash of water east of Kingshighway. Even as you toss your crushed Dixie cup in the direction of the broom-wielding volunteer sweeping up the confetti of trash left in the wake of thousands of runners, you suddenly begin to hate life.
It is a physiological phenomenon too great for science. What was once a grand and noble mission devolves to nothing more than a really stupid idea. Forgotten are the niceties of the previous miles. Irrelevant is your impressive collection of even splits, meticulously stockpiled over the course of the… course. No, none of that matters during the last 6.2 miles because the last 6.2 miles are designed explicitly to crush your soul.
Because the toughest miles are those when the finish line is just out of sight.
Endurance sport is a war of attrition. It is not a flashy battle of power, a 10-second display of speed and brawn. Instead, it is a slow, deliberate wearing down. It is a process of erosion. In fact, one definition of the word endure is “to suffer patiently.” In endurance sport, defeat happens slowly, for our resolve is not tried by a single great obstacle. Our resolve is tested by time and depletion. In endurance sport, the question is not “How much strength do you have?” The question is “Will you keep going after all your strength is gone?”
Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” No one knows this better than distance runners, for our sport begins when fatigue settles in. In the final miles of a race, quitting doesn’t seem like such a terrible option. Our original vision becomes hazy, blurred by doubts and discomfort. Our conviction, which was once unshakeable, becomes startlingly fragile, and we find ourselves weighing the consequences of compromise. In the final miles of a race, we are tempted by the option to settle for less than we set out to accomplish.
The other day, I was struck by the lyrics of a song that played on the radio as I was running.
I’m tired, I’m worn.
My heart is heavy
From the work it takes
To keep on breathing.
I’ve made mistakes.
I’ve let my hope fail.
My soul feels crushed
By the weight of this world.
The final 6.2 miles aren’t restricted to the marathon. In life, as in running, we will be tempted to give up. We will be swayed by detours, shaken by doubts, and enticed by compromise, for there is no perseverance without difficulty. We will feel tired. We will feel broken. We will feel worn.
But in those times, when the miles have siphoned our strength and exposed any superficial enthusiasm, we must hold out for our goal. We must refuse to settle, even for a moment. Just as a PR can be lost in mere seconds, so our greatest desires can be sacrificed in the emotions of a moment.
Conviction demands endurance. And in order to endure, we must hold on to our convictions. We must push through the final 6.2 miles in the firm belief that what we are doing matters and that all of our work, all of our training, all of our efforts up to this point have not been in vain. Because we have resolved not to be thwarted.
Because real endurance begins at the end of the race.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.