The Wall

Yesterday I completed week 12 of my 18-week marathon training plan. I suppose I should feel a great sense of accomplishment. 12 weeks without missing a workout. 48 runs. 264.3 miles. I just finished a cut-back week and enjoyed the slightly reduced miles. I ran 12 yesterday and felt good from beginning to end. But instead of feeling confident, I’m thinking about the wall.

Yes, the dreaded wall. It appears somewhere around mile 20 in a marathon. If you hit it, you know. There can be no doubt. I thought I hit the wall in my first marathon in Detroit in 2009. At mile 19 my brain became foggy. My son Shawn tried to distract me with talk about the sights we were seeing, like the newly beautified Detroit River walk. All I could think and talk about was pain and wanting to be done. Crossing the finish line would be good. But dying would be OK, too.

At mile 22 my knees hurt so bad I needed to stop. But stopping locked them up. Running again made them hurt more. There was no way out but to push through it. So, with a lot of encouragement from Shawn, I did. I crossed the finish line on my feet. It may have been from pain, relief, or excitement, but I cried as I slowed to a walk and received my finisher’s medal.

Runner hitting the wallI ran the Grand Rapids Marathon 3 years later. I don’t think I hit the wall in that race – I know I did. Because as I said, when you hit the wall, you know. I started the race feeling good. At mile 18 I was on pace to finish in 4 hours and 20 minutes, 18 minutes better that my marathon PR. But then I passed the mile 19 marker. (Note to self: 19 appears to be my unlucky number.) I started to experience the brain fog I had at the same point in Detroit. Then my knees started to lock up. It was painfully familiar.

But by mile 20 the feelings were more painful and less familiar. Every bone and muscle in my body screamed with pain. My energy level dropped to zero in a matter of seconds. I felt an overwhelming wave of negative emotion. I ripped my headphones out of my ears because the sound was suddenly extremely irritating. Then I realized I was struggling to breathe. I stopped. Not because I chose to. I just stopped. My body was done. It would not move. I had hit the wall.

I stood still for what seemed like an hour. Actually it was probably closer to 10 minutes. I regained my composure and decided I could jog the last 6 miles at a slow and easy pace. Easier said than done. I don’t remember much of what happened next, but I did manage to get to the finish line. I probably did more walking than running. As I limped across the line at the 5 hour, 18 second mark, my MP3 player cruelly served up Ian Hunter’s “Dead Man Walking.” I wasn’t quite dead, but I felt pretty close.

Runners hit the wall when they deplete the glycogen the body stores for energy. There are strategies to delay or even avoid it. I will be working on educating myself and putting what I learn into practice. Since I only have 6 weeks, I will need to learn fast. Of course I will let you know how it goes.


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