The 8 Stages Of Running A Marathon

Stages Of Running A Marathon

This is the last in a 4 part ‘Stages Of Marathoning’ series:

Stages Of Running A MarathonI often hear people talk about a marathon as two races. That you should ‘run the first half with your head, the second half with your heart.’

In my experience, marathons are made up of many more than two parts.

Stages of Running A Marathon

Every runner and every race will be different. In smaller races, you may find your rhythm immediately. In some marathons, the dark times seem to go on forever, and in others, they never arrive at all.

But in nearly all of my marathons, I spend some time in each of these stages, usually in this order.

Part 1: Starting Nerves (miles 1-3)

After all the training. After the days of hydrating and carbo-loading. After fighting race day traffic and parking and waiting in porta potty lines and gear check lines. After killing time in the starting chute, the gun has (finally!) gone off.

Your marathon has begun.

It’s common to feel a little off in the first few miles.

You may be battling crowds and your nerves may be a little unsettled. You may be distracted, thinking about something that went wrong on race morning.

There is often lots of jockeying for position in the first few miles, passing those who started too far forward, getting passed by those who started too far back.

You may struggle to find a comfortable pace and your rhythm.

What To Do

  • Be in the moment. Forget any challenges you faced on race morning. You’ve made it. You are running. Focus on the race at hand.
  • Run your own race and follow your race plan. Know the pace you want to go, and go that pace.

Part 2: Hells Yeah! (miles 3-8)

You’ve found your rhythm. There is still some lingering excitement from starting.

Hopefully, you are still feeling strong, although I often start to see runners struggling around the 6-mile mark. How bad of day are you having (or how poor was your training) if you are struggling at the 10k mark of a marathon?

What To Do

  • Keep running your race and following your race plan.
  • It can be tempting to speed up if you are feeling good. ‘Why not,’ you may think. ‘Bank few minutes just in case I need them later.’ Do not do this. Chances are, if you speed up now, you likely will struggle later, because you’ll wear yourself out.

Part 3: This Starts To Get Real (miles 9-13)

You hopefully still feel good, but there is still a looooong way to go. Even if I’m feeling good, I’ll think something along the lines of ‘I’m not even half-way yet?’

You are settling in for the long haul.

What To Do

  • Do I have to say it again? Stick to your race plan.
  • You may be tempted to modify your fueling plan if you feel good. You may consider skipping a planned gel because you are feeling strong. Do not do this. Stick to your plan.

Part 4: The Middle Miles (miles 13-18)

These miles are always a bit of a wasteland for me.

The excitement of starting has worn off, but the excitement of finishing is still many miles away.

A bit of boredom starts to set in.

A few mental doubts may start to nag at you about finishing.

What To Do

  • Don’t overthink any issues you may be having. Minor pains, pangs, and twinges pop up. Almost all of them are nothing, but you can talk yourself into them being worse than they are if you obsess about them. Acknowledge them and pay enough attention to know if it’s something severe enough to make you drop. If not, keep on going.
  • Keep your mind occupied. Talk to other runners, thank volunteers and supporters in the crowd. Stay out of your head as much as possible.

Read MoreMinfulness and the endurance athlete

Part 5: Dark Times (miles 18-20)

Many runners talk about ‘hitting the wall’ around mile 20 or 21.

I’ve found the biggest struggle usually hits around mile 18 or 19. It feels like I’ve been running forever and I’m still only in the teen numbers!?

These dark times may find you dwelling on how tired you already are and how far you still have to run.

What To Do

  • Don’t dwell. Not on how tired you are, or how far you still have to run.
  • Stay in the moment – don’t write the review of your race before it’s over. Maybe the race has gone to plan, maybe not. But in either case it isn’t over, so stay engaged and in the moment.
  • Dedicate each mile to a friend or loved one. Thinking about people you care for, and that care for you, may bring a little light into these dark miles.

Part 6: I’ve Hit A 2! (mile 20)

There often is a little psychological boost that happens when you (finally!) hit mileage numbers that start with a 2.

It may (or may not) be enough of a boost to be considered a second wind, but take whatever boost you can get.

What To Do

  • Mentally check in with your race plan. Are you still on track with pace, fueling, and hydration? How are you doing in comparison to your goal(s)? Have you had to invoke any of your ‘what ifs’?

Part 7: ‘Only’ A 10k My A$$ (miles 21-26)

These are often the longest 6 miles ever.

Some runners may hit the wall in these miles. I usually enter survival mode, just wanting it to be done already.

If this is your first marathon, each step may be the longest you’ve ever run.

What To Do

  • Trust your training.
  • Have an ‘I know I can do it’ distance – a distance you know you can do even on your worst day. For me, it’s Lake Merritt (a local lake that’s a 3-mile loop). On my absolute worst day, I can run that lake. When I begin to struggle, I think of that lake. At mile 20 and feeling dead? That only 2 Lake Merritts, I know I can do that. At mile 23? That’s only a loop of the lake. No sweat!

Part 8: I’ve (just about) Done It! (miles 26-26.2)

Depending on the course, you may see the finish line in this last little bit. The crowds get thicker and the cheers get louder.

Give it everything you’ve got to finish strong. Suck in the spectator’s energy.

I usually get emotional in this last stretch. I’m mentally and physically exhausted. Ecstatic about finishing. I’m proud of myself for pushing through training (when I wanted to quit) and the race (when I wanted to quit).

What To Do

  • Enjoy it! Bask in the cheers from the crowd.
  • Be in the moment. Some runners get so focused on stopping their watch or other little housekeeping tasks that they forget where they are or what they are doing.
  • Cry at will. You’ve accomplished an amazing thing.




Stages Of Running A Marathon


2 thoughts on “The 8 Stages Of Running A Marathon

  1. I absolutely love this post and needed to read this as I am running Chicago this Sunday and the nerves and excitement are kicking in! Thank you for this post.

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