The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running

Anyone who says running a marathon is all about physical fitness doesn’t know squat.

Marathon running is as much of a mental journey as it is a physical one.

Over the 26.2 miles, you experience a crazy deluge of emotions.

Here, I’ve broken a marathon down into the 15 typical emotional stages that nearly all of us goes through.

Wondering what your marathon will feel like?   Let’s get started:

1.Anticipation

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 1

“Should I have gone to the toilet one more time?”  

“Did I take enough gels?   Too much?”  

“Do my legs feel a bit weird?”

“I hope I don’t forget to start my GPS watch when the race begins”

The start line of a marathon is a funny place.   Everyone is standing still, perhaps getting cold, anxiously waiting to get going.  

Nervous anticipation of a crowd of fully carb-loaded athletes.

2. Sudden Euphoria

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 2

“This is awesome!  I’m flying!”

Bang – the race begins!  You start running and things feel . . . well, great!   Everyone is pounding ahead, and you are just . . . floating.

You’re bounding along like a deer through a field on a spring morning.

3. Adrenaline

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 3

“Hey, this is easier than I thought”

The euphoria of the start wears off, but for the first couple of miles, you are feeling incredible. 

Your pace is waaay faster than it normally is, but you feel completely fine. 

“Heck, maybe I’m just going to blow that target finishing time out of the water!”, you think to yourself.

4. Fortitude

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 4

“There’s still a long way to go, but things are good”

Alright, you’ve slowed down somewhat.   You’re back to your planned running pace, but things feel good – tight.  

But it’s still early days, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  

There’s a long way to go, so the trick is to get your head down and tick off the miles. You’ve got a plan and you’re going to stick to it.

5. Boredom

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 5

“Did I leave the bathroom light on this morning?”

Wow, 26.2 miles is kinda long! 

You’re still maintaining your awesome pace, but your mind begins to drift to other things.  

Things are not as effortless as they were before, but you feel good.

6. Doubt

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 6

“Am I beginning to feel a little tired?”

Maybe your legs are getting a little bit tighter.   Maybe no, it could just be your mind playing tricks on you.   After all, you are still maintaining a good pace.  

But weirdly, a seed has been planted in your head . . . ‘can I maintain this speed for the rest of the marathon?’

7. Denial

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 7

“This is just a minor setback . . . ”

Now your body is definitely registering small signs of pain.  

It’s impossible to ignore – maybe you’re sweating more, maybe your breathing is more labored, perhaps you begin to struggle to maintain your pace.

But you tell yourself – I can push through this!  It’s probably just a minor dip in energy levels, you’ll get that second wind soon.  

Maybe.

8. Anger

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 8

“Who made these things so long?”

There’s no avoiding that things are tougher now. 

If this was a regular run, you would stop and walk for a while to recover.   But you can’t do that – this is your marathon!

But are you too tired? 

Did you really train enough? 

Is this just going to get worse? 

Will you even finish? 

If Yoda taught us anything, anger is just fear in disguise.

9. Bargaining

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 9

“Maybe if I can just stop for a second, I’ll be fine…”

Alright, so you’re suffering and you’re not going to have the stellar finishing time you were starting to fantasize about.  

Your body is on strike – things are aching, your legs are heavy . .  but maybe there’s a way to salvage this. 

You can reach a compromise with your body… “If I just walk for a couple of minutes now, then maybe I’ll be able to tap into that hidden well of energy and run to the finish line . . . right?”

10. Depression

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 10

“Take me home”

Your official low point.  

All the adrenaline and glycogen that got you this far has been used up.   Now all that’s left is your will and determination, which is also in short supply.  

Every step is a struggle, and there is no hope for the graceful finish you had secretly pictured in your mind’s eye.  

You start to try and justify reasons for quitting to yourself, but until you can think of a good enough one, you reluctantly continue.

11. Acceptance

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 11

“This hurts, but I guess I’ll continue”

Ooft. 

This is tough. 

  ‘Alright’, you think, ‘I admit it.   I’ve bitten off more than I can chew on this one.   I’m not going to be impressing anyone with my finishing time’.  

You relegate yourself to a slow crawl for the rest of the marathon.  

It’s going to be long and slow, but perhaps you can cross the finishing line with some dignity, once you eventually get there.

12. Fortitude (again)

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 12

“I’m going to finish this, come hell or high water”

After a while of plodding away in misery, you begin to realise that the finish line is actually not that far away.  

And you’ve come this far . . . there’s no chance that you’re giving up now.   You’re going to finish this damn marathon, no matter how long it takes you.  

Maybe you find a little bit of energy, and your pace starts to rally.

13. Adrenaline (again)

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 13

‘Hey, I’m getting close to the finish line . . .  I’m actually going to finish this thing!’

Alright, so your legs are like blocks of cement.  

And you know you look terrible.  

But at some point, you become aware that the finish line is within your reach.  

No matter how tired you are, your brain will flood with adrenaline . . .let’s do this!

14. Euphoria (again)

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 14

“woohoo!”

Suddenly the finish line is within sight, and no matter how beaten up your body is, you know you’ve got it.  

The final sprint is somehow both excruciating and effortless.

Before you know it, you’re across the timing mat and someone is draping a medal around your neck. 

You hobble off, in search of food and comfort.

15. The Afterglow

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 15

“that was awesome, I feel awesome…hey, maybe I could do another one of those sometime.”

The feeling of accomplishment after a marathon is a not to be underestimated.  

For at least a few days, you can gladly sit around with your feet up eating ice-cream, reflecting on what you’ve accomplished and how it makes you much better than other people who haven’t run a marathon before. 

Eventually, you might even start to crave a little bit more of that feeling, and next thing you know you’re scanning the internet for your next race . . .

The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running 16
Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and good beer. More at his bio.

2 thoughts on “The 15 Emotional Stages of Marathon Running”

  1. For a beginner this is a great insight as to what to expect on my first Marathon journey in October 2020. Thank you, It hasn’t put me off but I am nervous!

    Reply

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