I wrote this originally as an answer to a Quora question back several years ago. This largely describes my experience running the Big Sur Marathon for the first time in 2017 (my 7th marathon overall). It was well received, so I did want to share it here. As many other answers to that question note, marathons are different for everyone, so if you are curious, take a look at some of the other answers!
The night before the race: You grab dinner, wondering whether or not it’ll upset your stomach. Or whether it will fill enough of it to sustain you for the next day. A couple beers relax the nerves and will help you go to bed early and try to get some sleep.
You get back to your hotel room. You lay out all your clothes and supplies for the next day. Thinking ahead to the next day, you wonder again why you decided to do this.
As you go to bed, you can’t help but think about the early wake up time and the race the next day. All preparation is done, but you really don’t know if you are ready. You try to convince yourself and review the course in your head. You get into bed and set an alarm for 4 AM. But you know you probably won’t need it.
The morning of the race: You sleep a bit, but wake up around 2 AM. Is it time yet? Nerves and anticipation prevent you from easily falling back asleep. You only have a couple hours left until you have to wake up. You doze off for 10 minutes. Is it time yet? No. It’s 2:24 AM. You do it again, is it time yet? Still no. It’s 2:51 AM. You do this two or three more times. It’s 3:54 AM, at this point you might as well get up. You shut off the alarm, get out of bed, and turn on the lights.
You wonder again, “why am I doing this?” You wonder again, “am I ready?” To defend yourself, you convince yourself that you are ready, and that you are doing this to test yourself. And that it’s a test that you want to succeed.
It is dark as you head outside, walking to the nearest bus stop that will take you to the start. As you walk you begin to see others traipsing over to the stop. Everyone is in the same boat, quietly thinking similar thoughts about the challenge ahead.
You get on the bus, and you sit down next to a stranger. The bus is jovial and bustling with nervous energy. Many of the racers want to talk, likely to distract themselves from the challenge ahead. Inevitably the person next to you wants to talk, and you oblige to fit into the culture of the bus. You share backgrounds and race stories. Eventually you arrive at the start. You get off the bus and part ways.
At the start: You can continue talking to people, but at some point before the race you start to isolate yourself to prepare for the challenge ahead. Putting in your headphones, you pull up music to motivate and rise to the coming challenge.
Listening to music reminds you what you are running for. The songs all reflect your own motives in their own way, even though they are someone else’s words. It is a personal experience, defining why you are here. You run for the people or parts of your life that have special meaning. You run because you want to prove or reaffirm to yourself that you can do this. And if you can do this, you can tackle other challenges as well.
You move to the start line. You take out your headphones. The Anthem plays and the start is imminent. You are fully inside your own head at this point, preparing your brain for the challenge ahead. Finally, the starting horn goes off.
Mile 1: You are relieved to finally be underway. Finally moving, you cross the start line and are on your way. As you dodge around others at the start, you are optimistic. Your legs feel fresh! It’s just running now, and you feel great. Finishing the first mile at a quick pace, you smile. Hey, the first 4% didn’t feel like anything, how bad can it be?
Mile 3: It all still feels pretty good. It’s just a casual run at this point. As you hit the 5k mark you make note of the time. Slow relative to a real 5k, but there is still a long way to go. That realization starts to dawn on you here. It’s been mostly downhill so far, and you still feel fresh. Your foot feels a little sore, and there’s a quick realization that it may feel a lot worse after 23 more miles. But it does no good to worry about that now, so you keep going.
Mile 5: The race leaves the mountains and hits the coast, there’s more sun trailing you now, and your shadow is noticeable but grows shorter. You take in the views and enjoy them. The running is still going well, but it’s still so early. Twenty percent in, you know the challenge hasn’t really even begun.
Mile 7: You casually strike up a conversation with someone running at a similar pace. After a couple quick exchanges, you find out that someone you knew from high school was the best man at his wedding. Both of you express some legitimate surprise and a “small world” cliché, after quickly exchanging names, you say “good luck, John” and power on ahead.
Mile 8: You reach a hill that you can feel at this point in the race. It’s a hundred and fifty feet, and it feels like it. As you reach the top, you say “fuck this hill,” (as one does with any good hill) and speed down the back of it. The real hill is coming up next.
Mile 10: As you finally reach sea level again, you hear the drums. You know from both the sounds and the distance that this is where the challenge begins. Over the next two miles, you face a 560-foot climb. For many, that’s a hike. For us it is less than a third of our total climb and will bring 14 more miles of a race to follow.
Even after a bit of the climb, you can’t help it, you start to walk a bit. A quick walk, but a walk nonetheless. The combined strain on your legs and respiratory system demand it. But you are still on the clock, so you pick it up and start to run again for as long as you can. Then you walk. Then run. Walk. Run.
Mile 11: As you hit the 11th mile marker, you realize that the hill is only halfway done and that it’s already kicked your ass. There’s a steady headwind now, and as you continue to climb it only gets stronger. Is it 20 mph? 30 mph? Who knows, but the only place you can go is right into it.
Mile 12: Perfectly synced, the hill peaks at the 12th mile marker and you head down the back of this one, trying to regain the time that you lost – four minutes or so, you estimate. You reach a sudden realization as you make good time down the hill: if you can climb that and still feel pretty good heading down, you could be in good shape for the rest of the race. None of it should be worse than that!
Mile 13: As you cross a bridge several hundred of feet in the air and reach the halfway point, you permit yourself to think about timing. It’s just about 1 hour and 45 minutes into the race. Repeating that effort would result in coming in just under 3:30 and set a PR by over 5 minutes. That’s a goal, but you realize the reality is that you’ll likely need those five minutes you banked and then some to overcome the final miles.
Mile 16: You still feel pretty fresh, somehow. Much of the downhill has now been spent, but you’ve been able to bank an extra 2-3 minutes for the closing miles. When you hit 10 miles to go, the full scope of the challenge hits you. You know you can’t do 10 more at your current pace. A quick calculation (negating that silly 0.2 at the end) suggests that going in at 8:20 the rest of the way would land you right at 3:30. You shorten your targets to 8:10 to adjust for the last 0.2, but you realize that probably won’t work. It’s roughly 8:40’s that should land you at 3:35 to get that PR.
Mile 17: You walk for the first time since the big hill. This one is smaller, but at mile 17 it still hits you like a brick. Not knowing the course, it’s hard to say how many hills are left, but looking along the coast up ahead of you, you know it isn’t going to get easier.
Mile 20: Mixing walking and running, you’ve slowed. The last several miles have still managed to be right near 8:20 or 8:30 per mile, but they are trending in the wrong direction and each mile feels exponentially worse. You see some of the same people over and over again. While you walk, they pass you. Running, you pass them back, as their run has slowed to a jog. There’s the old man in the yellow Boston marathon shirt, the guy in the red shorts, the guy in the white shirt and a visor. You give a head nod, but even turning to try to check their name or say anything seems a bit risky at this point in case you trip and fall. Plus, their kind of competitors at this point, as you paint them as villains in your mind to motivate yourself to pass them for good.
Mile 23: You aren’t sure if you will ever get to the finish. It seems illogical, and yet there seems to be an eternity left. You are climbing a hill and you can’t see the top of it. You can’t see the next mile marker either.
Finally, you reach the top of the hill. On the downhill you finally have the energy to talk to another runner that you haven’t seen yet. It’s too late into the race to paint people as villains, now we’re all the same team. This is her first marathon, though she did the 21-miler last year. She’s shooting for 3:35, presumably to qualify for Boston. I mention that’s my goal as well, noting that I think we’re on pace for that. As we reach a slight uphill she says to go ahead. We also exchange names, and I tell Chelsea “good luck!”
Mile 25: It hasn’t gotten any easier. You are a bit too tired to do the math now on what pace is needed, but it is quick to set the PR. The previous hills knocked off a lot of the time. You really don’t feel like running right now; each step hurts. Fortunately, this mile starts with a huge hill. It’s about 100 feet – you had looked it up before the run – but in person it looks unconquerable. You have no choice but to walk up much of that, as the seconds that you have remaining tick away.
Mile 26: Seeing the sign for mile 26, you know that you basically have one lap around a track left. It comes in two parts. The first is still a struggle. You can hear the finish, but you can’t see it, it’s still not tangible. Then with a slight bend you can see the finish. The cheers become real at this point. Without a watch, it is not quite clear yet if I can set a PR. But I’m pretty sure I can. Realistically, it doesn’t really matter: you are going to push it to the max over the last stretch as much as you possibly can.
Right around that marker, you encounter another friendly stranger. You encourage each other, and then when you hear her say “you can do it!” you nod and you go on ahead. As you reach the finish, you finally see the clock. It’s not your exact time, but subtracting out the minute you had to wait to start, it’s clear that I set a PR. Despite the hills, the doubt, the unending distance, I did it!
After the race: It’s all a blur from there. All the volunteers are incredibly friendly: handing out medals, giving you food and drinks, handling the bag check, and even those who volunteer to massage myself and other sweat-covered marathoners. Of course, there is an appreciation for that, but you wander around somewhat absent-mindedly. It all feels a bit like an out-of-body experience. There’s some pain in the body, some stiffness, but none of that is really felt until the next day. For now, it’s a mix of relief and tiredness that overwhelm the body. You meander around, grab a few beers, and eventually decide that it’s time to find a way back home.
All this time, there’s a pride that resides in you. It hits you again when you find the official times times and realize that you beat your previous PR by 51 seconds. You stare at the time again and again to both confirm that it is real and get another hit of dopamine from seeing it staring you in the face one more time.