The Logic of Marathons

There’s none.

There is no logical reason why you should run a marathon.

Unless you are one of the fastest runners (Hooray for Yuta Shitara who finished this year’s Tokyo Marathon in 2:06.11, the fastest time in history for Japanese men and less than a minute faster than the winner, Kenyan runner Dickson Chumba), and unless you are talking to someone who has ran a marathon or done similar long races, no one really cares. It’s not that they are apathetic human beings. It’s just that unless you have gone through the same ordeal, it is difficult to fully appreciate what it takes to run a marathon and why anyone would willingly put themselves through it.

One of the parents in my daughter’s basketball team has always only said the perfunctory ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to me, but when he learned that I was running the Tokyo Marathon, he came up to me, grabbed my gloved hands in an overly firm and zealous handshake and wished me the best of luck. He himself ran the Tokyo Marathon two years ago and it took him 6 hours to finish. I love this instant bond of runners.

I used to be one of those people who did not care. My husband’s marathon and Ironman finisher medals have always hung in his study window, chiming in the breeze. Being an endurance athlete is just one of those things that have always been part of his identity that I never thought much about. It’s what he does, I say. And it wasn’t until my thigh and calf muscles threatened to lock up at kilometer 30 of my own marathon that I began to marvel at how my husband could complete a full marathon after an exhausting day of swimming and cycling in an Ironman race. Or how he was able to run more than 270 kilometers through Tohoku in remembrance of March 11, 2011. Or how he managed to run a marathon in a little more than 3 hours and rush across town to be there for his daughter’s recital. I could barely move after crossing the finish line after a much slower run.

Running a marathon does not make any sense. You spend hours and hours in long boring training runs because it’s impossible to “wing it” without putting in the time. Despite the hours you put in, race day run will still feel arduous and for what? I quote my 7 year-old daughter who quipped, “I want to run a marathon too so that I get a nice towel and a medal!” That’s about it.

But after completing the 2015 Tokyo Marathon in 4:37, a part of me wanted to do it one more time to prove it wasn’t a fluke. I got my chance when I won the lottery for the 2018 Tokyo Marathon.

The first marathon was understandable. I wanted to see if I can even do it. The goal was just to finish, period. A second marathon — why? At the 30th kilometer of this second one, my legs were protesting each stride I was forcing them to make, I asked myself, “What the f*** am I doing here? Why the f*** did I sign up for this again?” But like a good friend sagely remarked, “The f***s make the best stories.” Plus running a marathon is a great reminder that there are many things we do in our lives that don’t necessarily make sense, like getting married or having kids. Why complicate a nice single life with something messy like having other people to live with?

And so I ran. Here are three things I learned this time.

1. The internal work in the first half of the marathon is very different from the internal work required in the second half.

The first half of the marathon is fun. My longest practice runs are almost the distance of a half marathon and so I know exactly what to expect. Because of this, I found my attention wandering towards other runners and making running commentaries in my head on their choice of costumes (“Doesn’t that gigantic headdress feel heavy?”) and their stride (“Is she going to tiptoe all the way to the finish line?”). It was great distraction and the kilometers flew by.

The second half is when running starts to be physically painful, largely because unless you have been practicing running the distance of a marathon all the time, your body is not used to being pushed further. This is when I started engaging in mind tricks such as convincing myself I know exactly what 12 kilometers left means. “Come on, it’s just a run to the supermarket and back” and I try to my best to ignore the snarky comment at the back of my head, “Yes, but not after having frigging ran 35 kilometers!!!” In the second half, I can’t see other runners anymore and my eyes automatically darken and focus on the road about three paces ahead. I’m vaguely aware of the other runners rushing past me or those who have slowed to a walk. All I could focus on was myself. Which leads me to the second lesson I learned this time

2. “Be where you be.”

Compared to the first marathon, I felt better prepared this time. I did more core workouts to prevent my knees and hips from swaying out of alignment and hurting me, with the unintended consequence of chiseled abs. I cut most sugars from my diet which meant I was lighter and had less weight to carry across the distance. Surely, a 4:30 marathon is conceivable. For the first half of the marathon, I compared how fast I was with other people in my running block, and patted myself on the back when I passed people in earlier running blocks. And oh wow, I passed my 4:30 pacesetters!

But a lower body mass means that I needed to replenish my lost calories quicker which I didn’t do fast enough. Soon, I felt cold, hungry, and the needed to pee three times more than my first marathon. Which meant the calories I was putting in came a little too late. The burst of energy I had at the first half of the race quickly fizzled.

When we go to a big busy place with our kids, we ask them what they should do when they suddenly can’t find Mommy or Daddy. “Be where you be!,” says our 5-year old son. This is the same thing I said to myself on the second half of the marathon. Be where you be. I am where I am. I stopped caring about  the speed of other people in my block, or other blocks, or where I was in reference to pacesetters. I stopped caring about my previous marathon time. This is my race, right now.

I realized that I do the same thing in life. When things are great, it’s so easy to compare myself with other people but when things are crappy, my vision dims and I cannot bear to see how well others are faring. It’s a great reminder to quit this happiness-sucking habit of comparing ourselves with other people. We will all get to the finish line somehow and get the same exact towel and medal, whether it took 3:30 or 5:30.

3. Moving though the pain is the only way to move away from the pain.

I could barely walk after crossing the finish line. Any movement — but especially going down the stairs — hurts. The next day, I got up and walked when I would have preferred to sit and laze around the house. A 5 minute walk to the post office took me 20 minutes, but I persisted. My husband gave me a rolling pin and I pressed hard where it hurts.  Every movement with the pain became a movement away from the pain and as the day progressed, I regained strength and flexibility. Generous servings of thick mung bean curry helped too (see recipe below). The following day, I woke up feeling 95% and pretty much back to normal (the 5% owing to the pain of my big toe nail which died a horrid purple death). Recovery through movement really works, which I think also applies to many of life’s pains.

The logic of marathons? None.  Except maybe to know that I still had the tenacity and the mental reserve to see a grueling task to the very end. So if you still choose to run and work hard to finish one, you already have my deep respect.


Post Marathon Recovery Mung Bean Curry

1 cup mung beans soaked overnight
oil for pan frying
1 onion chopped
2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp chili or to taste
4-6 cloves garlic finely chopped
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 carrots finely grated
salt and pepper to taste
handful of spinach chopped
grated cheese
Boil pre-soaked mung beans in water until soft. Set aside. Pan fry onion, garlic, tomato paste, carrots and spices. Pour thi. s into the pot with the mung beans. Season with Better than Bouillon No Chicken base, salt, and pepper. Simmer. Add the spinach towards the end. Serve topped with grated cheese.


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