"I could never run that far."
Most people — when the subject of running a marathon comes up — say something along those lines. It's an understandable sentiment. 26.2 miles is quite a distance to cover. Putting it in perspective, downtown Muncie is “only” 22 miles from Taylor’s campus. And if picturing yourself running that distance is too abstract, consider the time.
Most marathoners take over 4 hours to complete the distance, which is a long time to do anything nonstop, much less exercise. So no, I don't fault anyone for holding to this assumption.
But I usually find myself trying to convince that person that they’re wrong, that a marathon is within their grasp. I'm trained as an exercise physiologist with a particular interest in metabolism and the cardiorespiratory system, so thinking about what happens when you train for and run a marathon is a fun intellectual playground for me.
But the fascinating, enticing, frustrating and devastating thing is that understanding the experience of a marathon from the comfort of my desk falls laughably short of understanding the experience of a marathon from the perspective of the wasteland that is, say, mile 24 of an actual marathon. So the fact is, I might be able to make a good scientific argument for being able to run a marathon, but the better question is why should anyone want to run a marathon?
Of course, the first answer to that question is that it’s fun! Much of the time, the runs are enjoyable, and I feel great after having accomplished my exercise for the day. And if nothing else, it’s a way to spend extended amounts of time outside, away from the work and the tasks that consume my other 23 hours of the day.
But beyond that generally enjoyable experience, I often point out to people the myriad ways marathon training relates to life. It takes work. And managing and completing that work is easier said than done.
Like most tasks in life, the marathon is something that the individual needs to accomplish on their own, but it’s infinitely easier to accomplish within a community of at least one other runner who can provide encouragement and accountability. And just like the various meaningful endeavors in life (relationships, parenting, careers, perhaps even one’s faith walk), the goal and overall experience of the marathon process are easy to paint in proud, beautiful and fulfilling strokes, but often the day-to-day effort is monotonous at best and unspeakably challenging at worst.
Even as I write this, I chuckle at how inspiring I'm trying to make this article while semi-dreading my next freezing cold training run. But I’ve never heard anyone who’s finished a marathon say, “That was a waste of time — definitely not worth it.”
So apparently, the result is worth it; the difficulty is withstanding the present discomfort for that future reward. The committed marathoner needs to be able to drag herself out of bed on a Saturday morning in February and hit the pavement, regardless of how she might be feeling that morning.
Perhaps there’s something about the magnitude of the endeavor that makes marathons both inviting and unreachable at the same time. And this paradox isn’t the only one — marathons are packed with them.
For example, you have to meticulously plan your training as well as your race strategy. But on the other hand, overdependence on a single plan can backfire, as marathons bring to life Joe Louis' quip that "everyone has a plan until they've been hit." Or take the fact that marathons are surely a physical challenge, but anyone who's run one will tell you that the psychological challenge is greater.
However, if you press that person, separating the physical from the psychological from the emotional is actually pretty hard to do.
And maybe it's that last paradox that really encapsulates why the marathon is a beautiful thing. In my estimation, we Christians have done a pretty effective job at drawing lines around what is "physical," what is "emotional," what is "intellectual," and what is "spiritual."
But the reality is, a biblical understanding of our humanity, indeed, a lived understanding of humanity, renders those lines utterly incapable of providing any meaningful distinctions. So, maybe what draws me to marathon training is the sheer inexplicable applicability of it. Inexplicable to describe, which is why I just end up telling the person that they need to stop listening to me, lace up and start the experience for themselves.
And yes, you absolutely can run that far.