I ran a marathon on Sunday.
Marathons are like, I imagine, combat. Intense experiences that you need time to decompress from. The closest I have ever come to a combat experience was the nine years of police work I did. Most nights I was out on my own on patrol, focused, active, confronting situations fraught with peril, occasionally experiencing fear (or once or twice, terror). It was intense and, at times, dangerous work. Twenty years after I left it, I'm still decompressing from it. Marathons are a lot like that.
You never really get over any of them. I can vividly remember each one I have run. For the several hours that you are engaged in them you are thrust deeply into their immediacy. All actions are aimed towards the solitary completion of a difficult task. Hours of drudgery and acute discomfort are coupled with an occasional uplifting moment such as when you view a magnificent vista or come upon a rehabilitating wounded veteran struggling along doggedly on injured or missing limbs.
You are limited by the possible. Do you need a 5:40 in the last mile to PR? It ain't gonna happen so enjoy the finish. Do you need a 7:40 instead? Then it's time to get a move on and hope for the best.
Like a soldier placed into the field, the whole community supports you. The supply train is loaded and people hand you drinks, food or comfort in the form of aspirin, cooling sprays or encouragement. If you falter, they will immediately succor you. But you have to go it alone. No one can cover any part of the 26 miles for you. On the race course, there is no place to hide from the elephant.
Also, you can't escape from your own effort. Were you a coward, did you do your duty, or did you perform extraordinarily? Deep down, you know the answer. It's your own secret, but the knowledge is there within you.
A few years back, a friend, perhaps feeling the tug of mortality after passing the half-century mark, asked me if I had done even one thing in years that had left me feeling truly exhilarated. The way the question was asked implied that after long reflection the answer would invariably be no, sort of like when W was asked if he could think of any mistake he had made following 9/11.
The answer instantly sprang into my head. Sure, I replied, I feel that way after every marathon.
That's how I felt about it then, and that's how I feel about it now.