The strange truth about the ‘dead-zone’ of a marathon

If you read any running magazine or book about how to run a marathon, you will find out that it is pretty basic. You spend several weeks training and building up your mileage while practicing your nutrition and hydration strategy until you taper off in time for the big day. Next you show up for your event on the start line totally focused and prepared as you wait for the claxon to go off. Then you run past the start line, start your smartwatch and keep going while drinking and eating as required until you reach the finish, stop your watch and relax. That about covers it, right? Well…

As I sit with my feet up resting, somewhat sleepy and reflecting about my latest marathon effort I think there might be something missing. After running my second ‘in-person’ marathon following some virtual races, I’ve realised that although there are countless articles about how to prepare for a marathon nobody tells you what it is really like to run one. Especially when it comes to the mystery of the elusive last 10km. Because unless you are trying to set a record of running countless marathons in a row by emulating Keven Sinfield, no marathon training plan normally includes a run longer than 32km. Which means that when you run anything farther during a marathon you are entering the unknown.

You may have heard the whispers and rumours about a ‘dead-zone’ of sorts where runners begin to resemble zombies. And for many, that’s more than enough than they ever wanted to know about the last leg of their race. But what really happens in the last 10km? As I found out there are some strange things that go on in that last part of the race yet for some reason no one talks about it. I don’t know if it is because, like childbirth, our brains cleverly erase the trauma so we will do it all again. Or it is because all the articles and books about marathons are only written by runners who glide like gazelles so effortlessly through the last kms that they simply don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Well, since I am not a gazelle I think it’s worth sharing my experience of running in the ‘dead-zone’ of a marathon, at least before my memory becomes more selective. So sit back with a cuppa while I reveal the truth about three strange things that can happen in this unknown 10km.

But first I must stress that running a marathon is not the same thing as running two half marathons when it comes to effort. It actually gets exponentially more difficult to run anything past 21km. By the time you run beyond the 32km mark of a marathon you have to do more than just try to ‘dig deep’. At this point no running mantra is worth your breath. In fact, the amount of effort you have to put into running in the ‘dead-zone’ can start to affect your perception of reality. It can feel as if you have entered into another realm where normal rules and logic no longer apply. Which explains why things get weird once you are running in the ‘dead-zone’.

You can power-up by tapping
If you are running a well-supported marathon there will be plenty of spectators lining the course cheering on at various points of the race. Of course, many families and children will be there holding up signs of encouragement while others will be giving out high fives to any passing runners. However nice it is to hold out your hand to get a high five, in truth is it will slow you down. But once you are running in the ‘dead-zone’ of the race it can be your saving grace because the first truth is that you can power-up by tapping.

Somehow, getting a high-five from a random child in the last 10km can give you a sudden burst of energy and propel you forward even faster. Even if you are so tired that you feel like crawling a high-five can give you just enough power to get you to the next hand. It becomes almost infectious because the more hands you high-five, the better you feel and run while the number of high-fives offered also multiplies.

But if like me, you are lucky enough to spot a child with a homemade ‘Tap for Power’ sign, zero in on them. With a careful tap you can literally feel yourself powered up, at least until the next one.

You can skip your p’s and q’s
I think it is fair to say that the UK is renowned for being a place where conservative social norms are followed. The national pride people hold for pastimes such as queuing is a prime example. However, all of this decorum slips away the further you get into the ‘dead-zone’ of a marathon. Which explains the second strange truth, that minding your p’s and q’s means something entirely different.

Mid-way through the ‘dead-zone’ and with less than 5km to go in a marathon it can become so difficult that your brain switches to survival mode to focus on taking care of the body’s bare essentials. Which is why all of your practiced good manners, frankly, go out the window. No longer can you patiently wait at the water stations or graciously accept any offers of sustenance. Instead, you can find yourself skipping the queues while grabbing a fistful of gummy bears or flying saucers from passers-by and not even remembering if they offered you one.

But as you run even deeper into the ‘dead-zone’ it gets even worse. Runners and soon-to-be walkers can litter the streets like derelict pirates, swaying and even spitting with abandon. With the last portaloos long passed, any calls to nature are answered urgently and pretty openly in adjacent bushes and trees. By this point in the race you can find you have no modesty left. Luckily, neither does anyone else.

You can become slightly delusional
Finally, the last strange truth about what happens in the last 10km of a marathon can take place in your head. In the final kms of the ‘dead-zone’ and as you finally head for the finish line, your exhausted body can play mind games with you. At this point not everything is all what it seems. Even if you are very familiar with the course or are running a two-lap marathon, the scenery on the home stretch can look quite different. Which means that it’s easy to become slightly disoriented and lose your bearings. Especially when you no longer recognise the same landmarks that you were previously using to judge the distance. It doesn’t even matter if your watch is telling you there’s only 3km to go until the finish because you can still be utterly convinced that you need to pass the red house with the tree before you’re done.

Oddly this also means that you can become extremely compliant and will literally follow the directions of anyone. Which is why when I approached the last 2km of my marathon at a T-junction and a race marshal steered me towards the finish rather than in the opposite direction to run another 21km loop, I felt not only relieved but grateful. And as I headed towards the uphill finish and felt increasingly dizzy and about to pass out, as much as I wanted and needed to stop, it didn’t occur to me that I could. With crowds of strangers shouting at me to keep going, I felt I had to obediently carry on running until I almost threw up at the finish line.

Ultimately, training for a marathon and getting to the start line is a feat in itself, let alone completing a tough one. But hopefully knowing the strange truth about the last 10km of a marathon hasn’t now completely put you off your event. Who knows, you may find out on the day that you are actually a gazelle and can storm through the final stretches of your race. But if you speed past anyone still struggling in the ‘dead-zone’ don’t forget to high-five them (just not too hard).

With that in mind I begin some much needed recovery time and a chance to replenish all that energy spent. And why not start it all with another recipe. With the Coronation taking place and in recognition of the role of Scotland’s Stone of Destiny in the celebration, I couldn’t resist coming up with a recipe for Blueberry, walnut and maple Scones of Destiny.

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