What People Get Wrong About the Marathon Analogy

You’ve heard and you’ve likely said it: “Life isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.” The idea being that we should take things slowly and pace ourselves. Generally speaking, I’m all about this. We live a world that is becoming more immediate by the day. Don’t know the answer to something? Google it. Want to listen to a song? Tell Alexa. Wonder what your friend is up to? Text her. Wait .92 seconds and, if you don’t get a reply, text her again. What could possibly be holding her up? You need to know. Now.

I talk about this a lot with my students as it pertains to their literary lives. We are constantly bombarded by messages every hour of every day. Texts, posts, pictures, stories, articles, shows, movies, music. As an English teacher, I want students to slow down, think about things, and consider. I want them thinking about how they are or are not filtering the messages they’re receiving. To do that, they need to slow down. Here’s where I could use the ol’ “it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon” adage, but I don’t because, as an actual marathoner, I know better. 

Here’s what people get wrong about the marathon analogy…

Wait. Before I proceed, I’m going to give you a warning and an option. The thing is, I’m pretty fired up about this. And I’m officially on summer break and this is my personal blog and (did I mention?) I’m pretty fired up, so I’m going to drop some f-bombs here. If you’re not game for that kind of language or you’re thinking, “Oh, Amy. Really?” (hi, Mom!), you can access an edited version of the rest of this post here.

Now, for those of you still with me here, where the fuck was I? Oh, yes. Here’s what people get wrong about the marathon analogy…

RUNNING A MARATHON IS FUCKING HARD.

You’re covering 26.2 miles on your feet at a go. Even if you walk some or all of it, that’s tough stuff. I’ve run five so far, if you count the 2017 Milwaukee Marathon that was .68 miles short (and I do) so I speak from experience when I say that I have tried pacing some of those suckers out and it doesn’t make it easier, it just allows you to finish. If you find yourself mid-marathon thinking, “Whoa, I need to pace myself,” it’s probably going to be really fucking hard. Also, worth it, but we’ll get to that.

Of course, we all “know” running a marathon is hard and that’s why people train to do it. Now, here’s the thing about marathon training…

MARATHON TRAINING IS FUCKING HARD.

It requires a lot of running. (Shocking, I know.) Even the easiest of plans requires a huge time-on-your-feet commitment. And, speaking of plans, the one actually shocking thing no one tells you to expect when you’re expecting to run a marathon is that, as soon as you mention you’re thinking of running a marathon, all of your distance-running friends will quickly and thoroughly provide you with everything you never wanted to know about marathon training. (Except for any mention of chafing, which is rude.) If you don’t believe me, casually mention that you might consider running a marathon sometime to a running-loving friend. You’ll have a dozen training plans in your inbox by morning. Guaranteed.

So, yeah. Marathon training is fucking hard. I mean, I don’t know how you like to spend your weekends, but most marathoners plan their weekends around their long run — which is usually an early morning endeavor because we somehow have people who love us and want to spend their waking hours with us even though we return from said long runs smelling worse than that two-day old roadkill we passed at miles 7 and 14 respectively. As a night owl myself, I admit that I only wake up early for two things: running and wanting to see the sunrise over the ocean in Hawaii that one time. End of list.

If you want to do it right, (“right” meaning allowing yourself enough time to train and avoid injury in your pursuit of running 26.2 miles at a go) you need to commit to approximately four months of training. And here’s the thing…

NOBODY MAKES YOU RUN A FUCKING MARATHON.

Much less, train for it. One of my favorite signs spotted along a marathon route (and there are many, including, “This is a really long way to go for a free banana” and “Run faster…I just farted — which, of course, is much funnier if the person holding the sign is more toddler than middle-aged) is “You know you don’t have to do this!” It always makes me smile, which is me allowing a little bit of my crazy to show across my face. There’s also the reminder that, “You paid to do this!” and, yeah, that’s another thing…

YOU HAVE TO PAY TO PARTICIPATE IN A MARATHON.

So the whole concept is fucking crazy. You volunteer to do this crazy difficult thing that takes months of planning and training, and, once you get to race day, you still have that 26.2 ahead of you, which is bound to be crazy hard and, as I briefly mentioned before…it’s fucking worth it.

I could go on and on about how and why it’s worth it (and I have), but that’s not why I’m writing this. I’m not trying to get you to run a marathon. I couldn’t care less if you do or don’t. You do you. What I want to address, what I feel we need to address is what people get wrong about the “life is a marathon” analogy. We need to address this now because I’m hearing this adage being used more often as it pertains to the work we need to do — in our homes, in our schools, and in our communities — to address and dismantle the systemic racism that continues to plague our country.

“We can’t go from zero to 100,” I was recently told. And my eyes just about popped out of my head. First, because the implication is that we are at zero. ZERO. WTF? Are we okay with this? Isn’t that a call to immediate action itself? Second because it echoes reasoning for taking one of the racial equity detours that has slowed/stalled/stagnated progress towards racial equity. Third, it seems like another way of using the old, “It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon,” adage without the benefit of understanding just what, exactly, that analogy suggests.

I’m willing to view antiracist work as a marathon because, if it’s really viewed as a marathon, a true marathon, we agree that…

IT’S FUCKING HARD. Mentally and physically. It’s exhausting. I can’t claim to have really been at this work all that long and I’m exhausted. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that this is with the cushion of privilege I have as a white woman striving to do this work. There is no finish line in sight (spoiler: it doesn’t exist), so we just need to keep moving forward.

EVEN THE TRAINING, THE LEARNING, IS FUCKING HARD. It’s time-consuming and it’s uncomfortable. If chafing:running (and it is) self-reflection:antiracist work. No excuses. Make it happen. If you’re thinking, “Make what happen? How?” think back to those well-intentioned marathoning friends I told you about earlier. People have been talking and writing and posting about all sorts of things you can (and should) do to educate yourself and take action. There’s even a book titled How To Be An Antiracist. If you’re still stumped as to where to start, ask Siri.

Of course, NO ONE IS GOING TO MAKE YOU DO THE WORK. It’s just that we owe it to one another as fellow human beings to do everything we can to be good to one another, to do right by one another. Nobody actually signed up for this life, for this marathon. Yet, here we are.

Here we are. That’s important, and I failed to mention it before. In marathon/training, it helps to have a buddy. I’ve found the same to be true of antiracist work. It helps to have people to turn to, to lean on, to dig into the work with. We need people to support us, to push us, and to hold us accountable for doing the work. I have been incredibly lucky to have easily found such people in all my marathons — running, teaching, allyship, and life.

And, of course, by lucky, I mean privileged.

And ready to do the fucking work.

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