Why Do We Put Ourselves Through Hell?

belgrade marathon running

They say – I wouldn’t know myself – that after giving birth, after all the pain and stress and whatnot, your mind tricks itself into forgetting the hardship and shifts soon after into wanting to do the whole thing all over again. So it is with the marathon. 

I want to write this as much as a reminder to myself as anything. Because my recent marathon was by far one of the biggest mental challenges I’ve gone through. It was hardly a walk in the park physically, either – I came as close as I ever have to passing out after finishing, and my legs were shaking so violently with cramp that I literally couldn’t stand up straight – but that’s to be expected when you run a long way on a hot day. 

That pain is also quite easy to remember. It’s sharp, and immediate, and physical. The mental struggle, however, begins to fade from your memory almost as soon as you finish. During the race, you think quite clearly and logically to yourself that you never, ever want to go through all of this again. Within an hour of finishing, you’re analysing areas in which you could improve. By the evening, you’re sketching out a timeline for the next race. 

You don’t need to run a marathon to know that it will be ‘hard’. Twenty six miles is a long way to go, on your own two feet. Three or four hours would be a long time to walk without stopping, never mind running, and never mind – if you’re really racing – running hard. 

Until you do run one, however, you can’t truly understand how hard it is, nor why. And that’s entirely because of the mental side. 

Capital-R Running in general is full of quotes that get chucked around every which way, but one of the truest is that marathon training is 90% physical, 10% mental. Actually running a marathon, meanwhile, is 10% physical, 90% mental. Corny, perhaps, but completely accurate. 

This is due in large part to the sheer length of time. 

Three or four hours is a long time to be doing anything. Get to the end of a three hour movie – even one full of action, adventure, drama – and you’ll be in something of a daze afterwards. To be doing something as monotonous as running for that long is another matter entirely. 

Time and space both stretch. Early on, in your adrenalised excitement, miles pass without you noticing. Later, in the most horrific, no-man’s land portion – roughly 16-24 miles, by my estimation – even half a mile lasts forever. Your watch starts to play tricks on you. It tells you only a tenth of a mile has passed, however long you manage to resist checking. The maths begin to crush you; you reach 22 miles, and think that sounds like you’re nearly done, and then you work out that – even at a decent pace – that’s another half hour of constant suffering ahead. 

The fatigue is building the whole time. Almost certainly pain will also be growing, in at least one part of your body and likely several; injuries that you know will take their toll after finishing, but must simply be ignored for now. 

And all the while, you ask yourself why. There’s no good reason, and that’s the real kicker. 

There are lots of ‘hard’ things in life. But we usually do those because we really have to, whether they relate to work, family or friends, study, and so on. You’ve chosen to do the marathon, yourself, just because. It doesn’t matter to anybody but you whether you finish or not. 

At any moment you could end this self-imposed suffering. You can just step off the course, and nobody will castigate you; they’ll sympathise, and tell you ‘well done’ for getting as far as you did. Perhaps you’re doing it for charity, and at least that will provide some reason to keep going; but even if you stopped, it would be a harsh donor indeed who demanded their refund. 

And these same thoughts of the futility of the undertaking keep going through your head. And the road goes on, and on, and on. And you continue plodding along, one foot in front of the other, and it feels as if you might as well be in a dream; that you’re not really going anywhere at all. It’s not ‘fun’. It was to start with, but that stopped a long time ago. Now it’s just really, really hard, and there’s no break from it, no respite, and it’s going on, and on, and on, and on. 

So why do we do it?

Because we’re tricking ourselves. 

The high you feel for achieving anything is proportional to the struggle. And there’s no rule saying that struggle needs to be imposed on you by anybody or anything else. You can put yourself through hell just fine, if you want, and – guess what – it works just the same. 

You finish the marathon, and – when you’ve stopped fearing an imminent death – you feel fantastic. Ecstatic. It’s really, genuinely emotional – I’ve been overwhelmed both times after finishing. You’ve gone through this physical and mental hell, and you’ve come through the other side. After everything, after all of that neverending torment, it’s over – you did it. It’s finally over. 

And it doesn’t matter one jot that you did it all ‘to yourself’. You feel that almighty high all the same. The trick has worked. And now a whole new type of self-deception can get straight to work. 

You’ll struggle physically for days afterwards. But your mind will recover almost immediately, because not only was there a finish line-shaped full stop at the end of all that suffering, but it all also resulted in that most almighty of highs, which has magically blotted out the boredom and suffering and horrific space/time disruption you suffered. 

You’ve run a marathon. It wasn’t so bad really. You made it, after all, didn’t you? 

And with more training, mightn’t it be easier next time anyway? And if the weather had been a bit better, that would certainly have helped. And you could have tweaked your meals in the build-up, and made sure you got more fluids during the race. And it was all very exciting – with the thousands of other runners, and the loud music and the shouting and the big finish. All that stuff was fun. And it would be nice to do one somewhere new too, you’d make a holiday out of it, and maybe that course would even be a bit easier, which would help too. 

And this, and that, and maybe if… 

And then suddenly your treacherous, adrenaline-thirsty brain has tricked you. 

You’re looking at the other marathons taking place this year. You’re back in training. You’re targeting an improved finish time. And weeks – or more likely a few months – later, you’re in another city, nervous and sleep-deprived at the start line, then running among thousands and utterly thrilled. 

And then you get to 22 miles, and you’ve still got half an hour of hell to go, and you realise you’re an absolute idiot. 

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