Anatomy of an Endurance Race

“Dream your pursuits; pursue your dreams” – jb

Ten long dreadful months after the 2013 Bucks County Marathon it’s finally over. I’ve endured injury, rehab, and chaos to return to the trail for a 30K in the mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania. Joined by hundreds of disturbed fellow-runners, those who consider rollicking through the woods, navigating rocks, boulders, fallen trees and rushing streams a pleasant Sunday morning, I had the peace and tranquility to dissect the anatomy of an endurance run.

On the trail at the Double Trouble, French Creek State Park, PA

On the trail at the Double Trouble, French Creek State Park, PA

My analysis is based on the 30K, but applies to distances of a half-marathon and more.

Pre-race: Preparation for an endurance race is mysterious, ranging from those who meditate to others who behave like a linebacker smashing his head against a locker before the Super Bowl. I’ve observed runners who stretch, do Ti-chi, pray, converse with themselves or other runners, do Yoga, cross their legs and perform deep breathing exercises, yell, sprint, and many who generally space out. Myself? I’m typically a loner before a long race, burrowing into my psyche and imagining mile sixteen, sweating profusely, a few lacerations, laughing at how silly I am.

Illustration - SufferEarly Miles (EM): The phase where I struggle most. Thirty years ago I would have described the early miles as mile one and two; today they are the first 10K or so. The EM are characterized by making excuses to turn around and beg for a refund because I’d mistaken the trail run for a bird watching expedition and forgot my plaid shorts, vintage BanLon socks, and binoculars (apologies to birdwatchers who read this; I am actually a bird lover.) As I get deeper into the early miles, the excuses for a refund become more imaginative, creative, and usually by mile six I realize I’m in a rhythm and a smile emerges.

Early Mid-miles (EMM): I break into the EMM (roughly mile 6-9) enthused, like I’d found a $10 bill in a Taco Bell parking lot. I imagine my mane breezing in the wind as I stride and leap obstacles with the grace of a thoroughbred, feet barely touching the trail, passing runners by the dozen. In my mind, I am a stallion; in fact, I am lucky to be in the middle of the pack.

Bloody KneeAdvanced Mid-miles (AMM): A more accurate title for this stage (somewhere around mile 10-13) is Reality. It is a time in the race when illusion is replaced by unanticipated events such as a foot slamming into a rock, watching a fellow-runner smash his face into boulder, twisting an ankle, or assisting someone over a tree trunk four feet in diameter. The mind no long has the luxury of grandiose visions, rather it is focused on the reality of the situation—I’ve run roughly a half-marathon up and down mountain trails, feet soaked from slipping off a rock into a stream, and proud I haven’t yet fallen, though that means the odds are against me—and I still have roughly a 10K to go.

Illustration - RunEarly Late Miles (ELM): After decades of endurance running, I’ve come to rely on hitting the ELM (miles 14-16) for no other reason than the peace and solitude they provide. Years of experience have taught me that when I exhaust myself completely, a refuge emerges from deep within and I am at peace with life and myself. It is a state of mind where I am Buddha, Thoreau, Martin, Gandhi, and the homeless man in a heap of tattered blankets laying on a grate in downtown Philly, in other words I am in tune with the universe. My ideas are colorful 3-D, full of humungous luscious fruit and vegetables, majestic animals, smiling faces, a spotted horse. I am in a place where if I had a pen and paper, I could sit on the ground and write a poem so profound it would bring humanity to tears. I am no longer human, I simply Am. (If you are wondering, there wasn’t a marijuana patch at mile 15.)

Winding Down (WD): The last few miles of an endurance race are a challenge to place one foot in front of the other until crossing the finish line. At this point every muscle in my body is drained, I have no nourishment left in my system, my mind is mush. If it hadn’t been for the decades I had been successful at doing this, I wouldn’t believe it was possible.

Two Steps Past the Finish Line (TSPFL): I am planning my next endurance run.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve run the Double Trouble where I conjured up the Anatomy of an Endurance Race. The Double Trouble is a double-loop trail run on a 15K course where you can choose to run either a 15K or 30K. After the first lap, runners who choose the 15K are directed to the finish line and 30K fools like me continue for another punishing loop. When I was running the final steps of the 30K, a number of volunteers screamed at me and pointed in the direction of the finish line. I yelled back, “I’m doing the 45K, which way to do I go?”

Running shoes off, cold beer in hand, planning next endurance race.

Running shoes off, cold beer in hand, planning next endurance race.


About Jim Brennan

Jim is a Philadelphia-based writer, author, poet and editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal.
This entry was posted in Health, Marathon, Running and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Anatomy of an Endurance Race

  1. Sophie33 says:

    It is great to see that you are back running in those lovely places too! 😉 Good luck with it all!


  2. Wow Jim, after that long journey back of yours I could not be happier. As a fellow runner who has endured many injuries and joint challenges I send my most sincere and heartfelt congratulations. You’re an inspiration to us all. ~ Rick


  3. LB says:

    Jim! Congratulations!
    Your descriptions of the AMM and ELM … oh my. Endurance indeed!
    But the TSPFL made me smile.


  4. Aching Foot says:

    Awesome achievement it is! Thank you for sharing your insights! Learned a lot as well! I’m more pumped up to continue my training and probably run more races as I could! Thanks man! Keep it coming! All the best!


  5. French Creek! Love it. I haven’t run there, but I HAVE taken my dogs swimming there! Glad you had a great run. Back to doing what you love.


  6. runner500 says:

    Sounds a good analysis to me – although I wish I always got that Early late miles inner peace, it happens when I have a good one …


  7. Jessica says:

    I couldn’t agree with your descriptions more. I’m heading back to marathon training this winter and I know that many of these emotions await me. Happy running!


  8. drmikebda says:

    Dear Jim, Good writing. Thank you for sharing. Love, Uncle Michael


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