Skip to content
Marathoner Dean Karnazes running up a hill of golden grass with the coast and ocean below and behind him

Ode to Marathon

NY Times bestselling author and Ultramarathon Man, Dean Karnazes, knows why we charge into the abyss of the marathon—and what it takes and means to do it.

It will challenge you. It will crush you. It will change you.

Despite its growing popularity, there’s nothing easy about finishing a marathon. Regardless if you’re an elite front-runner or an anxious first-timer, the undertaking is fearsome. And that’s because the marathon is not about running; it’s about salvation. You see, we spend so much of our lives doubting ourselves, thinking that we’re not good enough, not strong enough, not made of the right stuff. The marathon offers an opportunity for redemption. Opportunity, I say, because the outcome is uncertain. Opportunity, I say, because it is up to you, and only you, to make it happen.

There is no luck involved in finishing a marathon. The ingredients are simple: commitment, sacrifice, grit, and raw determination. Nothing complicated here, though nothing easy, either.

So you set about your training to prepare your body for the rigors of running 26.2 miles. You refuse to compromise, dedicating yourself wholeheartedly to the contest at hand, pouring everything you’ve got into it. But you know the marathon will ask for more. In the dark recesses of your mind, a gloomy voice is saying, You can’t do this, not you. You do your best to ignore the internal cynic, but that nagging voice of self-doubt won’t go away.

The marathon shakes you to the core. It deconstructs your very essence, stripping away all of your protective barriers and exposing your inner soul. At a time when you are most vulnerable, the marathon shows no pity. The marathon tells you that it will hurt you, that it will leave you demoralized and defeated, crushed and lifeless in a heap alongside the road. The marathon tells you it can’t be conquered, not by you. “HA!” it taunts you, “In your dreams…”

You fight back, however, and stand courageously at that starting line, nervously awaiting the gun to go off. When it does, you put your head down and charge into the abyss, knowing honestly in your heart’s heart that you either paid your dues or that you skimped along the way. You see, there’s no lying to oneself here. The marathon sees right through excuses, shortcuts, and self-transgressions. You can’t fake your way through a marathon.

All goes well for the first half. But slowly, step-by-step, the pain mounts as the intensity of the endeavor amplifies. You remain steadfast, knowing that you did not skimp in your training, that you did not take shortcuts, that every footstep has been earned through months and years of rigorous preparation and hard work. Still, with each draining thrust forward, that little nagging inclination of self-doubt in the back of your mind grows progressively louder.

Without war a human does not know if she is a hero or a coward. The marathon gives us that war. At the mile 20-mile mark your bravery is in doubt; that looming voice of uncertainty is now all you can hear. It hurts so bad you want to stop. It hurts so bad you must stop. But you don’t stop. This time, you ignore that voice, you tune out the naysayers who’ve told you that you’re not good enough, not strong enough, not made of the right stuff, and you listen only to the passion within your heart. That burning desire tells you to keep moving forward, to continue putting one foot in front of the other no matter what. Courage comes in many forms, and running a marathon demands the courage to keep trying and not to give up regardless of how dire things become. And dire things do become. At the 26-mile mark you can barely define the course any longer, your vision faltering as you teeter perilously on the edge of consciousness.

And then suddenly before you looms the finish line. Tears stream down your cheeks as you realize you may finish, you may actually finish a marathon. Finally, after years of torment and toil you can answer back to that nagging voice of uncertainty in your head with a resounding, “Oh yes I can!”

You burst across that finish line and are forever liberated from the prison of self-doubt and limitations that have held you captive. You have learned more about yourself in the past 26.2 miles than you have known in your entire existence. You have freed yourself everlastingly from those chains that bind and hold you back. Even if you can’t walk for days, even if you are confined to your bed, never have you been so free.

As they carry you off from the finish line, wrapped in a flimsy Mylar blanket, barely able to keep your head upright, you are at peace. That daunting adversary that has haunted you an entire lifetime is now your liberator, your fondest ally. You have done what few will ever do—you have done what you thought you could never do—and it is the most glorious, unforgettable awakening ever.

You are, above all, a marathoner, and you will wear this distinction not only on the medal they place around your neck, but also deep within your heart, for the rest of your God-given years. Nothing can ever take that away from you. As with Pheidippides, the original Greek marathoner, you are part of a sacred fraternal order of the few and the courageous. You have kindred spirits across borders and across time. Others may admire you, congratulate you, and tell you they are proud of you, but only those who have crossed that finish line know the true feeling. A marathoner is not just something you are, but someone you’ve become.

Adapted from The Road to Sparta by Dean Karnazes. Published by Rodale.

For more, visit:

Ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes sitting ruins in the desert


Previous article It’s Supposed to Hurt Like Hell