A marathon is earned suffering. You work very hard for 18 weeks, running 400-odd miles all in, just to get to the point where you're able to run long enough to use up all the stores of glycogen in your muscles. That sounds fun, right? And boom, you're done.
(I'm not talking to you, Dean Karnazes/Marshall Ulrich/Todd Jennings, crazy long-distances runner types. I'm talking to the over-3:30 set and slower...like Paul Ryan slow. Like me.)
So, yeah, run through your glycogen and get a space blanket. Sure. Except that most people run through those stored carbohydrates around mile 18, or 20, or 22.
Which means you've got 8.2 or 6.2 or 4.2 miles to go. And it's those miles that are your reward. They fucking hurt! In a good way! You have to run them with your brain! And while you're running them (hahaha, "running" them, yeah right), you're thinking things like "why why why why step step step step step why why why why c'mON mutherfukker" mostly, but also, if you're like me, you're reflecting on the end of Infinite Jest (and, sadly, you take no pleasure in the fact that you read it AGES ago and the people around you probably didn't and are philistines), the part where Gately's in the hospital and seeing the D.A. sitting outside and he's enduring each millisecond knowing that the pain contained in a millisecond is finite and he's continuing and continuing and continuing and continuing, etc. This reflection is made less enjoyable, if you're like me, by the constant presence over your left shoulder of a possibly hallucinatory prosecuting attorney in a fedora running effortlessly and taunting you and calling you fattie, but that's just me OR IS IT. You might also, as I did this past spring, reflect on the pain that it was to be David Foster Wallace, and how tough life must have been for that poor guy, and how brave he seems in retrospect to have been in the face of such crushing depression, and how lovely some of his thinking and phrasing and structure and (I'm not going to footnote this) convoluted sentences were. And you might start to mantrafy the words "this is water this is water this is water."
I've run four marathons, the most recent one this past spring after a six-year hiatus (child #2 really puts a dent in your whole thing). And it was during this one that it struck me that if I hadn't trained as hard as I had, I would not have earned the pain of those last four miles. I would not have had the opportunity to find a limit for myself, lean into it, push against it, and shove it back—maybe not as hard as I'd like, but still—shove it back for another 44 minutes after I reached it, until I decided to stop. A marathon gives you a chance, within an otherwise normal, even comfortable, life, to be told NO by the universe and to answer back 'FRAID SO.
They say you hit a wall in the marathon, and you do. But what they don't usually tell you is that you can choose to grab hold of the wall—it's about seven feet tall and eight feet wide, made of stacked 4x4s— hoist it painfully over your head, stagger to the finish line under its weight, then throw it onto the ground flat and stand on it while they take your picture.
If you don't believe me, take a look at those post-finish-line photos. Everyone in them is actually about four inches taller.