The feeling at the start of a marathon is usually one of anticipation, nerves. You know the pain ahead: the blisters, cramps, muscle aches and, mostly, exhaustion. But you do it anyway, the ease of the first few miles making you forget the previous turning of your stomach. Running in a crowd, you try not to kick others in the heels.
The movement is exhilarating at first. There is nothing like the first few real strides, the pride in starting this 26.2-mile journey. You focus on your breathing, your posture, the crowds. Naturally, gradually, though, your body weakens.
Many must convince themselves the mental halfway point is mile 20. After that, the miles seem to stretch on longer. The closer you get — five miles away, four, three — the longer it seems you have to go. You realize you want to throw up. You might begin to feel like you’re dying.
Some marathoners hit “the wall” — that breaking point when their body can no longer do what their mind keeps telling it: Forward, forward. Others might see hallucinations. (Sports nutritionist and endurance athlete Mark Tarnopolsky has talked about seeing little purple men running up and down the sides of cliffs during a run.)
What then? What do you do when you are so close to finishing, but it seems impossible?
Luis Manzo, a sports psychologist and running coach in New York City, suggests there is a way forward: Rely on the people around you. If you didn’t solicit a running partner to jump in at the time you thought you’d be struggling, turn to the crowd. Interact with people. Give a thumbs up sign, say “thank you” to people cheering, blow kisses. It releases endorphins, and it might be enough to get you through.
When all else fails, the crowd has your back.
On Monday, 36,000 runners will gather at the start of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass., a year after two homemade pressure-cooker bombs went off at the finish line of the race renowned around the world. The runners will be nervous. They will want to prove their strength, more than ever, to themselves and everyone watching.
Last year, Krystle Campbell, 29, of Arlington, Mass.; Martin Richard, 8, of Dorchester, Mass.; and Lingzi Lu, 23, a Chinese graduate student at Boston University, were killed by the shrapnel. Others suffered horrendous injuries, including lost limbs. Their lives were saved not just by first responders but bystanders. People in the crowd rushed forward, ever forward, without thought for their own well-being.
This year, if you happen to be a spectator along the marathon route, remember the power and strength you can imbue, and cheer with all your might. You don’t need a runner to flag or a tragedy to rock you into action. Running is a test. But it’s not just a test for the runners.