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  • Writer's pictureWILLIAM HAZEL

Beyond Mile 20 – Three Lessons of the Marathon

I had never run a step beyond 20 miles. That was my limit. That was the longest of my long runs. Like many first-time marathoners, I had followed a proven 18-week training formula that took me to 20 before tapering the next weeks towards race day.

I was first introduced to those miles beyond 20 on a clear November day in Richmond, Virginia. It was a straight run towards the marker banner, giving me the pleasure of seeing the 8-foot-tall numeric call creep closer for several long minutes.

The wind was from the North, the direction I was headed, and most of the time the banner was wavering towards me. The oversized white number 20 only visible now and again in shifting gusts. I confess to having a private celebration at the 20 marks. I was still running. Still feeling strong. Still feeling mildly confident of becoming a marathoner in the coming hour.

I learned a few important things between mile 20 and 26.2 that morning:

Focus On Your Form

I was enlightened about the loss of form through seeing my race photos after a difficult half marathon. I understood the root of my race day struggles was the unexpected high heat and humidity. We left the start line that day with a temp reading 80 and the humidity percentage at 87. Needless to say, it was a long run in the sun and not one of my standout running memories.

When the organizers emailed my race photo, snapped around mile 10, I was shocked to see how poorly I looked. I don’t merely refer to the dehydrated death is near pallor of my face. The capture revealed I had no form. I was clearly dragging my feet, my shoulders seemed fused to my ears, and my practically motionless arms and hands recalling those floppy appendages on the chap’s Tyrannosaurus costume, you know, the one that’s usually somewhere along the course.

Form matters. It always matters. The physical fatigue of pounding 20 miles behind you, plus the emotional trigger of embracing the unknown road beyond those 20 miles, leaves you open for losing form. For my race in Richmond that day, especially on the southbound stretch from mile 22 through 24, I thought back to those photos. I focused my attention on keeping my form as clean and as nonenergy zapping as I knew how. I kept my shoulders relaxed and down. Made certain my arms continued their gentle pump. Focused on keeping my strides lifted. Check out your own race day shots. How different is your form towards the end than in those early miles?

Get Into Your Head

That voice in your head. What’s it saying to you? What’s it usually talking about towards the end of your long runs? If you’re running your first marathon, that voice is going shout with full volume from mile 20 to 25. Mine sure did. I’m thankful for practicing my voice during those long, grinding training weeks. From week 10 through week 15, the miles were high and offered plenty of opportunities to work on what message I would tell myself at my first marathon’s final stretch.

Relax, run strong. Relax, run long.

That was something I put into my head those last miles. An easy, quiet mantra that took me a long way.

During those miles heading to your very hard-earned finish, you deserve to hear something positive, something affirming, something worthy of your effort. Getting into your head is a deeply personal technique, and everyone needs to find their own special voice.

If your voice is beating you down, begging you to stop, shouting at you to quit, you’re probably in your body, instead of being in your head. I realize I shared concentrating on form first, but please do not mistake this for meaning this is the time to put all your attention to your physical self. Especially all that discomfort you’re experiencing.

When I passed mile 20, I didn’t have discomfort. I had pain. I had a fair amount of pain. Maybe 5’s and 6’s on the pain scale of 10. My feet hurt. My calves hurt. A lot of my body hurt. I wasn’t surprised. I was an average runner hammering out my first marathon and I hurt.

The last expanse of miles taught me to get out of my body, get away from concentrating on my hurt, and get into my head. After mile 20 I worked very hard on cleansing my thoughts, changing my voice, from the oh my God how am I ever going to run for another hour, to a simple, calming, repeated message of action. I worked very hard on getting out of the body, and into the mind.

Run The Quarter Mile You're In

I had my final miles carefully planned out for Richmond. I embraced the famous notion of “Run the Mile You’re In.” I’m not sure who said this first. I’ve seen it attributed to David Willey, the well-known Runner’s World editor. It’s also the title of a book from Olympic Athlete Ryan Hall. I heard Des Linden say it once, in her no-nonsense, get to the point eloquence. I had always read it, but that’s the first time I heard a famous runner say it. It had a powerful simplicity and I put it front and center in my pre-marathon stuff to do list.

By the time I reached 20.2 miles, I realized it was all a lie.

There was no way I could run the mile I was in. It was too far. I suppose it works for professional runners putting the road behind them at a much greater pace. However, with my mid corral, try to finish before the beer was gone pace, I found the miles after 20 stretched a long way.

Having discovered the lie, I got into my head to break each mile into smaller, more chewable bits. The quarter mile seemed to work, although, I was only racing the stretches of pavement I could actually see. I was literally running the road before me. In some cases, it was may have been a mere 20 yards, in others maybe tenths of the mile were my focus.

It’s an odd paradox these final miles presented. I first ran a half marathon. That segment was simple to plan. I measured my pace to hit that important mark within a certain time. Next, I ran 6.9 miles to reach that coveted mile 20 banner. It’s perfectly intuitive to deduce that one should now run 6.2 miles to the finish. Except that, well, it’s a marathon, not a mathematics equation.

Instead, I offered myself the counter intuitive. I didn’t concentrate on running to the finish line. I focused on a series of short runs. I took notice of my form, relaxed, opened awareness of my breath, then got out of my body and into my head. My voice narrated me through a series of short, easy runs. In what seemed a compressed time scape, I had suddenly reached the big, beautiful blue flag that read 25.

Now that’s a mile to be in. The final mile. Open all your senses to be in that mile. Take the time to look at the faces lining the course. Greet them eye to eye. Notice the children and the dogs. Hear the cheers and the barks and the music coming from the party tent. Notice the sound of running shoes slapping the pavement. Smell the sweat and the street and the beer and the pizza and the port-a-potties. Nothing smells like a final mile.

And don’t forget to pick a runner ahead of you to beat to the line. Then pick another.

If you’re an average runner like me, the joy from mile 20 to 26.2 is something you may experience only a few times in your life. If you’re a seasoned marathoner, I can only hope the joy never diminishes. And if you’re yet unpracticed on those miles beyond the 20 flag, perhaps this handful of lessons I learned on my journey will be of some help.

See you on race day.

This article was previously published in Runner's Life, a Medium publication.

© Copyright William Hazel, 2021

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