But as the gun goes off and the momentum of the crowd surges forward, a wave of energy rises.
Those first few miles are exciting, but caution keeps most of us at a practical pace. We take in the view, get a feel for the ground, shake the nerves out of our legs, and try to create a comfortable rhythm.
It's at about mile 15 when the water stations and the Gatorade and the perky spectators become important. After that, those helpful pit stops are essential to the recreational runner's survival. Whether it's the Hash Hound Harriers - a group of men adorned in red dresses, handing out cold beer - or cheerful suburbanites squirting us with garden hoses, every little bit helps.
During my first marathon, in Portland, Oregon, I was struggling mentally and physically at mile 22 when I saw a woman standing on her curb, holding a paper plate piled high with melon balls. Not sliced melons, or chunks of melon - but tiny little spheres of what looked like honeydew. Her outstretched arms and her generous smile made me feel rejuvenated. I don't much like melon, but the sheer novelty and the promising hydration of those little, yellow balls perked me up. I swerved across the road and scooped up a handful...only to realize that the vision of fresh fruit was, in fact, a mirage.
I had grabbed a giant mound of Vaseline. That nice lady was thinking about our chafing issues and I was having hallucinations.
By the time I reached the end of the race, I had rubbed that jelly all over my t-shirt, my shorts, my face, my arms, and my less-than-fetching ponytail. Every speck of dust moving through Portland had attached itself to my body.
But before reaching the finish line, I had stopped giggling about my petroleum lather. I was tired, vulnerable, and in a fair bit of pain. Finishing that last mile of the marathon's full distance was so, so hard.
In those last moments I remember feeling very much alone. I wanted to stop and quit and cry. I was, after all, in a strange city with no group of friends coming to see me run.
But the anonymous cheerleaders standing behind the fence and those gathered in the viewing stands became my strength. Their shouts and chants and whoops reinvigorated me. When I heard someone yell, "You're almost there little lady! You're almost there!! GO GO GO!" I distinctly remember lifting my head and pushing the air with my exhausted arms. It made no difference who said it, but it made all difference to me.
And when I crossed the final line a volunteer with a heat blanket swaddled me like a baby and walked me to the recovery area. He was blond, about five foot five, freckled, shivering, and maybe 17 years old. I ran that race over ten years ago and I remember him in vivid detail. He took care of me and I knew I was safe.
When he handed me a rose (every finisher gets one in Portland) I felt like a sweaty, slippery, smelly little princess.
Today I look at images of Boston and it all comes rushing back. That temporary marathon community that rises for a seemingly inconsequential test of human endurance was formed and celebrated and suddenly, publicly shattered. Everything that was great about being alive exploded in an instant.
The blood, the terror, the casualties dominate our thoughts. From Belfast to Beirut to Baghdad to Boston, this is our violent, not-so-new normal.
But, as every runner knows, this is not the end. This is a part of the test. If we focus on the pain, we'll forget why we laced up our shoes in the first place. We have to lift up our sorrowful heads and push against gravity and appreciate the charms of life. We need to notice our neighbors - those people dousing us with water, clapping for our accomplishments, and waiting for us at the end of the road.
We're not in it because it's easy, we're in it because it's good.