7 strange things that happened to my body during my first marathon

Your body takes a serious knock during a marathon.
Your body takes a serious knock during a marathon.

For months, all I could talk about was running. It started in February 2018 after I decided that I was going to run my first ever full marathon – a distance of 42.2km.

I trained over the course of four months, hampered somewhat by a respiratory tract infection and rainy days. I now have more empathy with fellow runners, and I really appreciate that peaceful time early on a Saturday morning, before venturing out for a long run.

I was elated when I completed my first marathon and felt a great sense of achievement. It was not easy, and a number of people asked me if a "normal", non-athletic person without any special gifts can successfully run a marathon. The answer is yes – with proper training and guidance.

All runners can confirm what happens during training: you lose toenails, you bloat, you fall, you crave carbs, your stomach acts up. However, people don’t tell you much about what you go through during the actual race – maybe because it’s a private journey and everyone experiences it differently.

I once heard a quote: “Run alone if you want to run fast; run with people if you want to run far.” While there is something to be said about the camaraderie out on the road, it’s important that you train your brain early on to be able to handle your own company – somewhere on the long road, you will lose your club mates, your pacing group and your peers.

I was told many things about training my brain and anticipate rough patches. No one, however, told me about the strange things your body does during the final stages of a marathon:

1. I started experiencing period-like cramps – in my legs!

If you're familiar with running longer distances, you may be clued up about the “wall” that you inevitably hit at some stage during the race. Up until 35km in, all went well – then it started, a dull, aching sensation in both legs. In my case, it felt like the worst period cramps ever – except that I felt it from my thighs downwards. These aches didn’t prohibit me from moving; in fact, moving eased the nagging pain, but I could no longer run with the same bravado as during the first half.

Solution for next time: Any runner will tell you that there is nothing you can really do, no matter how seasoned you are. Fatigue is part and parcel of long-distance running, but it’s up to you to empower yourself mentally – learn to recognise the difference between discomfort and actual injury and push through, even if you feel like collapsing on the nearest pavement. It’s also important to maintain the glycogen levels in your muscles, which means fuelling, even if you don’t feel you need to.

2. I wanted to vomit and eat everything at the same time

Everyone warns you about the so-called runner’s trots, but that wasn’t a problem – probably because the thought of crowded portaloos was enough to beat my digestive tract into submission. Unfortunately my stomach didn’t behave the whole way. After 30km, I didn’t feel the need to take any more fuel, energy drinks or snacks. What I did, however, was consume handfuls of salt to help combat the cramps I mentioned above. I was feeling weak, yet full. Suddenly, however, the blood drained from my face and my mouth started producing copious amounts of saliva. I was going to vomit! By that time it was too late to refuel and the thought of choking down a sugary energy gel made me feel even more nauseous. Thankfully, an electrolyte sachet made me feel better.

Solution for next time: Take your fuel, even if the thought of another energy gel makes you dry heave. Remember that the adrenaline you produce also takes its toll on your energy reserves. You need to plan when to take your fuel, and you need to stick to your schedule. Also avoid eating snacks that you are not used to along the way, as these can upset your stomach.

3. I had no 'skaam' left

If there's ever a time when all sense of self and common decency goes out the window, it's during the final stages of a marathon. As I sat down on the pavement, I mumbled things to fellow-runners. I tried to take one more sip of energy drink, but somehow missed my mouth. I begged a fellow-runner to rub my leg down with ice. I spat. I should mention that I’m usually quite reserved and timid.

Solution for next time: Honestly, there is no solution and this uncharacteristic behaviour is part of the race day "fun". Remember that if you want to finish strong, stick to a proper fuel and hydration plan and pace yourself.

4. I saw things… weird things.

At 39km, Lion’s Head appeared as we turned out of Woodstock, up Strand Street. I know Lion’s Head well, and I've climbed it a couple of times, but today, it looked purple. Literally. I saw people that didn’t exist. I saw the sweeper vehicle drive towards me. (There was no sweeper vehicle – I might have been slow at this stage, but I certainly wasn’t last). As I ran into the stadium, I no longer recognised friends or family members.

Solution for next time: It is a medical fact that hallucinations do happen during long distance running.

5. My throat hurt – as in really hurt

A couple of hours after my moment of victory I was finally ready for my post-marathon reward – the biggest burger I could find. As I anticipated that very first bite, my throat and palate suddenly started hurting. Not your run-of-the-mill common cold sore throat – it felt like I'd shoved a beehive down my gob. This painful sensation lasted well until the next day. I managed to whip up a nutritious soup that soothed my throat – even though I was craving everything under the sun.

Solution for next time: As I was reading up on this phenomenon, making sure it wasn’t an allergic reaction, I discovered that it’s apparently quite normal to experience this after endurance events. As you breathe through your mouth, your airflow is restricted, drying out and irritating your throat and palate. You also experience dehydration and your salivary glands struggle to produce moisture as you take your first bite post-race – hence the pain. If you experience this, it can be combatted by certain breathing techniques and soothing your throat with lozenges during the race.

6. I was elated, and then the world came crashing down

The ecstasy of completing a fitness goal I had been working towards for several months was incredible – however, the feeling of “okay, what now?” not so much. Running adds structure to my day and sufficient recovery time means no running – at least not for a week.

Solution for next time: The incredible rush of endorphins can’t last forever. Combat your post-race blues by concentrating on your next goal. And while running is out of the question for at least a week, you can incorporate gentle exercise, such as yoga or swimming to speed up recovery. As for your mental state, cherish those memories and start focusing on the next race.

7. My jeans felt tight

“How can jeans feel tight after a marathon? I mean, you just burnt 3 000 calories. Isn’t running about losing weight?” My legs were swollen, which is apparently completely normal as your leg muscles become inflamed after being pushed to the limits. My battered legs were not the only swollen things as the next day my cheeks and eyes looked slightly puffy, which could have been a combination of too much sun and too much sodium to ward off those cramps.

Solution for next time: Start the recovery process as soon as you finish your marathon. Ice your legs, elevate them to encourage blood flow, wear compression socks and start to foam roll as soon as you can. And don’t plan on painting the town red in your skinniest jeans – put on those yoga pants and relax.

Afterthought: Yes, there will absolutely be a next time!

Image credit: iStock

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