Marathon start line
When it comes to discovering new things to fret about, dedicated marathoners are really only limited by their own imagination. (Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
In Stride

The Necessary Anxiety of Marathon Week

A friendly reminder that worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy

Marathon start line

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We are now less than one week away from the Chicago and Boston Marathons which, for the first (and presumably only) time in history will be taking place on consecutive days. For the roughly 55,000 athletes registered to take part, this is the time to relax, crack open a beer, and take comfort in the knowledge that those weeks of meticulous preparation will pay off.

Just kidding! As every marathoner knows, now is the time to worry about what can still go wrong. Now is the time for race week anxiety.

Needless to say, the most obvious source of concern is the weather on marathon morning. Most rational people know that the odds of that perfect meteorological cocktail—temps in the low 50s, dry, a tailwind that magically follows you around like a forest sprite—are fairly slim. And yet, the self-sabotaging expectation that you might have one of those days somehow results in disappointment when not everything lines up perfectly.

My ideal strategy is not to check the forecast until two days before the race. The thinking here is that there’s no point in consulting any long range weather predictions since, if they are favorable, you’ll fret about how things can still take a turn for the worse. Meanwhile, if the forecast is bad you’ll lose sleep thinking about just how miserable your day is going to be and won’t be adequately rested when you try to race 26.2 miles in furnace conditions, which will make your day even worse. (Full disclosure: I’ve never actually succeeded in staying blissfully oblivious until the last minute; there’s always some jerk who deprives me of my ignorance.)

Of course, unless you happen to have those rainmaking rocket launchers favored by the Chinese government at your disposal, the weather is not something you can control. So it probably makes more sense to get anxious about the second most common cause of race week anxiety: getting sick.

Marathon runners are not always the most desirable of domestic partners. All that slinking off to get in miles, only to return sweaty and too exhausted to finally fix the shower curtain rod which broke after bearing the weight of too many damp running clothes. In the lead-up to a big race, such lassitude can be compounded by a sudden severe case of germophobia, characterized by obsessive hand-washing, decreased displays of physical affection, and reluctance to take care of coughing toddlers. Anyway, that’s what I’ve heard.

It could be that this particular aspect of race week anxiety is less conspicuous in the pandemic era. Over the last year and a half, we’ve all become a little more wary of our fellow citizens, more prone to view them as a potential source of viral infection. I know it’s bad form to point out the upsides of COVID, but there’s never been an easier time for the marathoner to be discreet about his paranoia. For races that are far afield and require air travel, the concern, as ever, is that you’ll be sitting next to someone with an acute case of bronchitis who is eager to tell you their life story. However, since masks are currently mandatory on commercial airlines, you can seal your face in an N95 and not come off as a total psychopath. Silver linings.

Getting sick during race week is bad. Getting injured is worse. Don’t tell me crazy stuff doesn’t happen. During taper week a few years back, I was running on a pedestrian path when a bike passed me and I heard a pop, followed by a vague, stinging sensation in my left leg. When I looked down, I had a small, rusty nail sticking out of my calf, which must have shot out from beneath the tire at the precise moment when the rider zipped by. Here I was worried that I might turn an ankle or pull a muscle, and then the universe reminded me that it has a sense of humor. (Fortunately, I was fine, though I had to get a tetanus shot later in the week as a precaution, which naturally inspired its own bout of pre-race anxiety.)

Crappy weather, illness, and injury are only the most obvious sources of race week concern. There’s also food poisoning, start line transportation snafus, or finding yourself tenth in line at the port-o-potty minutes before the start and having to weigh your options. When it comes to discovering new things to fret about, dedicated marathoners are really only limited by their own imagination.

And that’s all before the marathon actually begins. It’s only after the gun goes off that the buffet of potential horrors really opens up. In terms of sheer improbability, I don’t know what the in-race equivalent is of getting a rusty nail shot into your leg by an unwitting cyclist. Probably somewhere between having your race interrupted by a train passing through the course and getting hit by a deer.

Of course, if the marathon were totally predictable, there would be less to savor on those immortal mornings when, despite the ever-looming possibility of disaster, you somehow pull off the race of your life. There’s also the theory that the best way to deal with pre-competition anxiety is to imagine all that can go wrong and to make peace with it by realizing that, in the grand scheme of things, a poor performance in the marathon ranks pretty low on the calamity scale. Regardless how your morning goes, you can usually still have a pastrami sandwich in the afternoon. I think it helps to remember that.

Anyway, good luck to everyone racing in the coming days. And try not to check the weather. (It doesn’t look good.)

Lead Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty