Fitness / Running

What Is It Actually Like To Run a Marathon? A Marathon Runner Explains

Ever wonder what it's really like to run a marathon? Here are some of the obvious, and not-so-obvious, things you might experience.

When you think of marathons or being a marathon runner, what comes to mind? Do the words, ‘not for me’, cross it? Or maybe you even feel a hint of curiosity and a tentative, ‘one day’ springs up?

Marathons can be often seen as an impossible feat but as Zecher proves, it really isn’t. With the right preparation (both for the marathon training itself and logistics of race day) as well as the right mentality, running a marathon is a challenging yet incredibly and fun rewarding experience.

We spoke with Clare Zecher, a marathon runner and coach herself, about what it’s actually like to run a marathon. She mentions some not-so-obvious realities (we’re talking bleeding nipples and gastro-intenstinal distress), the logistical nightmare of getting to the starting line (and to the lines to the porta potty) as well as post-marathon blues (yes, it’s a thing!).

On race day

There’s often talk about how a marathon runner can prepare for a marathon in terms of training and nutrition, but one thing that’s just as important in getting ready is to properly plan your arrival at the race. It’s incredibly important to be as prepared for your marathon, so that you can begin your race as collected and calmly as possible.

Run through a mock version of race day

“In training, it’s imperative to have already practiced running at the race start time and having figured out your breakfast and during racing fueling,” says Zecher. “However, if your race is a 9 AM start and you have to be up at 4 AM to allow time to drive, park, and stand in a start corral for 2 hours, then you’d better practice this scenario too.” This is why she recommends a marathon runner have a plan for race day as well as running through it ahead of time.

Train your bowel movements

Not only does this cover having to arrive on time but also with your bowel movements. Zecher comments, “Many newbies show up too close to the start time and are shocked at porta potty lines that take 30 minutes and then they are cold and uncomfortable waiting for their race to start in long corrals.” Minimize this by training your body, particularly your bowels, before race day.

“A marathon runner needs to prepare their body to evacuate their bowels at home or at the hotel before they leave. Then you’ll only have a quick stop at the porta potties.” Depending on how long your marathon is as well, you may also need to have pit stops along the way, so it’s important to be aware of their location, both pre-race and along the course. This way, you don’t have to spend too much time wandering around looking for them.

From her experiences, she also hints that “a bunch of other marathon runners will try to ‘hold it’ to the first porta-potties too.”

Prepare to be prepared

“Plan ahead to carry a disposable hydration bottle and snack with you for pre-race and have some ditch clothes with you,” says Zecher. “Ditch clothes you’d pick up are the kinds of things you’d donate to charity like holy sweatshirts and sweatpants.”

Doing so means that you can be properly prepared and optimize your marathon walking/running. And as a final hint, she adds, “Whatever your window pre-race is for arrival, allow time for things to go wrong so you can arrive safely and calmly.”

During the race

Runner’s Trot

The middle of the race can involve a mixture of feelings—elation, determination, fatigue and the thought ‘why am I doing this to myself?’ may potentially cross your mind a couple times. And as Zecher points out, another feeling may be an unwelcome one of gastro-intestinal distress or as it’s more commonly known, runner’s trot.

It’s one surprising reality about marathon running that some people may now be aware of so “new marathoners are always shocked when it happens,” Zecher notes. But even “Experienced marathon runners are often afraid of ‘when’ it will happen.” The good news—you can train your body to try and prevent it, at least 90 per cent of the time—through dietary changes and a gut training plan.


A common complaint is bleeding nipples. Fortunately though, there are methods to help prevent this such as nip guards. “They’re little bandages like band-aids for nipples and they prevent chafe,” explains Zecher. She also points out the common products that can help ease the chafing such as Vaseline or BodyGlide or a similar equivalent. However, she highlights “many don’t know they may need to modify their product based on environmental factors. Hot and humid or really rainy? Vaseline will NOT cut it in those conditions.”

Getting lost in the moment

There are moments during the race when the chafing, the fatigue and the stress fade away and make the hard work all worthwhile. Zecher says, “In the 1990s and early 2000s tons of us marathoners wore white shirts with our names in Sharpie across the front. It was so amazing to hear our names yelled out for 26.2 miles! In a larger race with 50,000 marathon runners you’ll still hear people cheering for you and it makes you feel like an Olympian!

“When you run through an aid station manned by enthusiastic volunteers and hopping music, it lifts you up mentally. While your heart rate may go up for a minute as you speed up in response, that’s okay because you are lost in the moment and having fun dancing through.”

After the race

A cathartic experience at the finish line

Crossing the finish line doesn’t just mean the end of the race. It means the end, or the coming together, of all your efforts—the hard work, grit and determination—from the few months prior. As such, “It is a very emotional experience to cross a marathon finish line,” Zecher says. “First-timers are often shocked that they break down in tears at the finish line [and] some athletes continue to do so for each race.”

Post-race blues

As an experienced marathon runner and coach, Zecher points out that “What isn’t talked about as much is post-marathon depression. We see this with iron distance triathletes too. After training for so long for an event, and realizing the event, athletes can become lost without direction and depressed.” This lack of purpose and/or routine can all contribute to this.

It doesn’t mean that you have to immediately jump into the next race but it could mean trying to find a way to navigate these post-marathon blues. Whether it’s having a great coach who can help “have you focused on your next event, even if it’s a year away, as soon as your post marathon glow begins to fade,” or trying out a new hobby or planning a trip, these are methods that can make experiencing the post-race blues a little easier.

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