The third toenail on my left foot came off with a gentle tug. It was black and dead, only partially attached when I took off my sock. I was sitting on my porch, nursing a banana-flavored shake.
It was a recovery shake, something I needed after a 20-mile training run on course to my first marathon five years ago in Minneapolis.
I was in pain. The pre-run Advil had worn off. But I felt good, satisfied after two months of training to be on my way toward completing a goal. For the first time in my life, I felt a real grasp of what my body could do and, in some ways, a better understanding of who I really was.
My marathon--and the monthslong process of preparing my body and mind to run 26.2 miles--had, in ways, changed my life.
I wasn't alone. In recent years, the popularity of marathon running has increased. Last year, about 410,000 people nationwide completed marathons, nearly double the number from a decade ago, according to the industry clearinghouse Running USA.
For all its popularity, the marathon allure remains strange.
"There's a mythology associated with the distance," said Ryan Lamppa, a researcher with Running USA in Santa Barbara, California. He meant it literally: In ancient Greece, Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens, which was about 26.2 miles, to announce a military victory. He then died on the finish line, according to the legend.
"In a marathon you overcome your own physiology, maybe even feel like you're facing death," Lamppa said.
A 26.2-mile run is near the limit many humans can handle, according to Dr. Grant Morrison with Edina Sports Health & Wellness, a sports-medicine practice. "There's a threshold where your fuel line gets tapped out," he said.
Runners generally deplete glycogen stores--an athlete's primary fuel--somewhere around mile 20. This energy-zapping phenomenon is commonly called "bonking" or "hitting the wall. "There's an old saying that the 20-mile mark is just the halfway point of a marathon," added Dr. Morrison, who's training for his 14th marathon this January.
It's this challenge--the raw physical stress of running, combined with the psychological notion of doing the impossible--that keeps people running marathons year after year.
Take Marty Humphrey, a veteran of 36 marathons and a coach with the Minnesota Distance Running Association (MDRA). He rarely skips a day of training for his next race.
"Marathons give me an excuse to run every day," said Humphrey, 43, of Apple Valley. "It's my lifestyle, part of my daily routine."
I met up with Humphrey and his marathon-training group on a recent Saturday. The morning's venue, an 18-mile loop from Minneapolis' Lake Harriet Bandshell, down Minnehaha Creek and around other area lakes, was to be my longest run of the summer so far.
Like many MDRA members, I was training for the Twin Cities Marathon on Oct. 7. It's been five years since I picked black toenails from my feet, but I never really stopped running. This will mark my fourth marathon in two years, and my seventh overall. I'm locked, like Humphrey and his crew--and like tens of thousands of Americans--in a continual training regimen, a marathon always on the horizon, always there for motivation.
From Lake Harriet, we ran south, then east along Minnehaha Creek, feet pounding the paved trail. We ticked off 10 miles by 8:30 a.m. At mile 14, my back started to knot. My ankles went numb, and I did a little kick--a whip-snap of the foot--repeatedly while running to try and get out the crick.
"Trouble there?" one of the runners asked, shouting from behind.
The memories of marathon misery come back strong at such times. It's a sport of the highest highs and the lowest lows. Cursing, drooling, shouting, puking, wheezing and choking up are all part of the human drama from about mile 18 on.
Not long ago--I think during Grandma's Marathon in 2005--I got belligerent in downtown Duluth, just two miles from the finish, head swirling with exhaustion, adrenaline and too much Cytomax drink. I sang Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" loud to myself. "How does it feel to be on your own," I yelled out, possessed. (Some people run like gazelles; I'm kind of an ape.)
Maybe I'm odd, but long-distance running to me has always triggered the existential--maybe transcendental--side of things in my head. It's a full reboot of all things physical, your bones, limbs, tendons, muscles and joints all utterly used up by mile 20 or so. Only your mind remains: I once ran the final stretch in a marathon in Madison, Wisconsin, with absolutely no sensation below my neck.
For me, the marathon experience makes most other things in life seem easy, physical or otherwise. It's a top reason why I love the sport. Marathons have also propelled me into ultra racing, where competitors run, bike or trek for 24 hours straight or longer. To other (maybe more normal) runners, marathons can boost the ego and breed mental toughness or self-confidence.
"I have to overcome day after day where I just don't feel like training," said Deborah Bohmann, a 33-year-old attorney in the MDRA group who will run her 10th marathon this fall. "But your mind always wins out over your body, and you make yourself get up."
Bohmann lists adjectives like driven, obsessive and compulsive to describe marathon runners she knows. "I'm saying those in a good way," she qualified.
Another MDRA club runner, Jim Devos, likes to say that no one runs just two marathons. "You either do one marathon and say, 'OK, been there done that,' or you keep doing race after race," he said.
For Humphrey--who once ran a front-of-the-pack, two-hour, 25-minute race--marathons suggest invincibility. "In my top shape, when I was young and fast, I felt unstoppable," he said. "I felt like I could do anything."
Today, more than 20 years past his days as a college runner, Humphrey averages three hours, 15 minutes on a marathon. "I just run for enjoyment now," he said.
Despite my blisters and black toenails, despite my middle-of-the-pack finish times--and trying desperately to forget the belligerence and the Bob Dylan--I know what Humphrey means.
Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eight U.S. newspapers; visit www.thegearjunkie.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog and an archive of Regenold's work.