Act 1, the first six miles, are always a mixture of nervous exposition and extrapolation. It's these, seemingly unimportant, miles that actually set the tone for the rest of the race. Early aches can lead a runner to fear for the success of the race, while early quick miles can instill a false sense of confidence. Much like a good movie or play, the first act of a marathon is all about attempting to figure out the end...and coming up woefully short. If anything, the first six miles should simply be a warm-up. It's about getting the miles out of the way without over-exerting, or hurting yourself.
Act 2, miles 7-13 are arguably some of the most fun in the race. At this point you're still feeling confident and energetic, and yet you're in a groove and cruising along. Even though you have no way of knowing exactly how you'll handle the second half, your confidence grows as you cross the double-digit barrier. This is the part of the story you'll want to hold onto later, whether it's to boost yourself during the dark times, or remember once the race is over.
Act 3, miles 14-19 is perhaps the darkest point in the race. At this point, the runner is beginning to venture into rarely charted territory, yet still finds themselves hours from the finish. Just as the hero often suffers a setback in the middle of his/her quest, so too does a wave of doubt usually work its way into the mix around Mile 16 or 17. While the runner tries to trust his/her training, it's also an unknown which version of Act 4 will appear.
Act 4, Mile 20-26.2: The final act of any marathon is either triumph or tragedy. Training for a 16, 18, or 20 mile run is relatively simple, but pushing to ready for a 26 mile adventure is something else. The thing is, both training programs can feel the same until the final moment. One of the most interesting things about a marathon is that you have no idea how Act 4 will turn out. You can hit a wall at mile 20.5 and limp to the finish...or you can wait for the other shoe to drop, only to find that it never happens as you cruise to a PR (today was more of the former than the latter). A good story foreshadows the ending but there's always something worth waiting for at the end and a marathon is no expectation.
My race today is over, and my 4:04 finish is less about the time, and more about the story. After all, the medals and numbers aren't really what happens, it's everything that went into preparing for that point.