The “Life is a Marathon” Analogy: The Training

I love analogies.  I especially love them when they help me better understand a truth or re-frame my perspective.  Still, I dislike any sayings that are over-used… analogies included.  The marathon analogy is especially tired (in more ways than one!).  Usually, it’s used to describe life situations (or life as a whole) that require steady endurance rather than a once-and-done burst of energy.  It makes sense, but I find the more I hear an analogy, the less powerful it becomes.

Recently, however, I’ve perked up when people start talking about life and its challenges as a marathon… because I’ve been training for an actual marathon for the past three and a half months.   Since most people never run a marathon, I thought I’d see if my actual experience could add some depth to the typical usage of the phrase.  Although I can’t write about the actual marathon experience quite yet, since I ran my 20 mile run (the longest training for me) this weekend, I think I’ve “earned” the right to at least speak to the training.

No, not me…

I think training as a whole is a better metaphor for life in general than the marathon itself.  Vice versa, I think the actual running of the marathon works more for individual life situations rather than life as a whole.  I’ll let you know what I think in three weeks when I actually run the big 26.2…

For now, here are some lessons I’ve learned from my marathon training that are applicable to life as a whole.

  • Know your patterns and prepare for the times that are predictably difficult.
As I’ve accumulated mileage and gotten used to 12+ mile runs every weekend, I’ve realized the parts of the run typically the hardest for me (physically, mentally and emotionally!).  Starting the run is daunting, knowing the sheer amount of distance I have ahead of me to cover.  It takes me a few miles to get warmed up and to settle into the run.  I’ve learned to not jump to a judgment on the run in the first few miles.  Starting my longest runs, the thought always crosses my mind that I’m not sure I’m going to be able to make it to my goal that day.  I have to remind myself that I feel like that every time, and so far, I’ve always gotten past it, felt good, and finished my run just fine.

For me, the other trying part of a run–at least the out-and-back runs–is the turn-around point.  It’s hard to grasp that I have to retrace my steps… i.e., “I have to run all of THAT again??”  I also know that tired point is when my emotions start bringing up completely unrelated things I just can’t manage while also trying to gear myself up for the second half of my run.  Recognizing this pattern, I can mentally prepare for it, know it when it comes, take it for what it is, and move on.

We all have similar patterns in our lives, repeated situations in which our responses are predictable.  I’m reminded of this anew every time I start the school year… when I come home every night exhausted, feet and throat aching, with the irrational but certain feeling the world is going to end.  I don’t mean that dramatically or to be funny (although I do find it funny when I think back on it).  There’s usually nothing particularly “bad” about the first few weeks of school–actually, it almost always goes well enough–it’s just exhausting in every sense of the word, and the thought of months to go seems unbearable.  So, I have to remind myself it does get better… I get used to the constant activity, the students get used to the routines and expectations, and somehow I always hit my stride.

The nature of life is cyclical.  While your job may not have the defined patterns of teaching, life situations are repeated, whether by the year (seasons, birthdays, holidays, anniversaries of the good and the bad) or by event (births, deaths, relationships beginning and ending).  When these situations repeat themselves, note your responses and remind yourself the way you feel is not the way you’re always going to feel.

  • Check the basics before you look for complicated solutions. 

 “Water is the best sports drink.”  It’s one of those phrases that got stuck in my head after watching the same nutrition video with my science classes year after year.  Most of the time, sports drinks aren’t necessary for exercise, unless you’re doing an intense activity over an extended period of time… say, training for a marathon.  So, I mostly carried sports drinks on my long runs till one week when I ran out.  I was getting thirsty when I found a park’s water fountain that was mercifully turned on despite the cold weather.  The water tasted so, so good and I easily finished the last few miles.  I’m rather convinced that fountain is magical.  Sometimes… all you need is water.

In other words, when you find yourself struggling, ask yourself whether you’re getting enough sleep, whether you’re eating well, whether you have downtime in your days, if you have a structured routine. These aspects may seem simple, but these things are really easy to overlook.  The past few weeks, I’ve been having more pain in my shins and ankles than normal.  So, I cut out a few runs, paid more attention to icing the sore spots… and then realized I mostly just needed new running shoes!

  • Preemptive attention to your needs, while sometimes painful, is better than the alternative.
I hope my neighbors don’t hear me screeching after a long run.  It’s not that I’m in pain or injured… it’s that I’m trying to lower myself into an icy cold bath.  It’s supposed to help reduce inflammation… which should in turn shorten your recovery time, lessen muscle soreness, and prevent injury.  Honestly, sometimes I feel that same forced grit-your-teeth feeling when I try to pray or process in my journal or even just organize myself for the next day.  If you avoid paying attention to small hurts, you’ll still have to deal with them eventually, and by that time they may have turned into a much larger problem.
  • You can only get stronger if you rest. 
Experts recommend even the most avid marathoners take at least one full day of rest a week.  You have to give yourself time for your energy to replenish and your muscles to rebuild.  Otherwise, not only do you jeopardize your chances of being physically able to meet your goal, but you could do some serious damage to your body.

In our society, we like to keep life at a fast pace, quickly filling any unfilled hours as if it’s a sin to have unoccupied time.  Recently, I heard a speaker say workaholics receive a positive feedback signal from our culture… but God has his own feedback signals.  His signals may start with the back-of-your-mind realization that you’re irritated all the time, or that you no longer feel meaning in your efforts, or that you just don’t care how things turn out… but God’s signals will get louder and louder until you have no choice but to listen.  Just because you feel like you can keep going doesn’t mean you should.   I’m not going to say much more about rest here because I’m just about the worst example there is (my best friends can attest to that)… but I’ll say I’ve crashed and burned more than once, and the months and years of filling every minute are so not worth it.

I’m expecting to have more to add about the actual marathon later… for now, I hope I’ve given you some things to think about!  You didn’t even have to run 20 miles to get them. 🙂

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One Response to The “Life is a Marathon” Analogy: The Training

  1. Anonymous says:

    “Know your patterns and prepare for the times that are predictably difficult.” This is so perceptive — I think I often treat emotions as impulses that exist in isolation from their triggers. I needed this today.

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