The wall: There’s no way around it

The Wall, marathon training
Respect the wall. Fear the wall.
Illustration by Jim Carroll

This past weekend I completed a 21-mile run with my marathon training team. It was the longest distance I’ve run to date and, overall, it went pretty smoothly.

Long runs over 18 miles are pretty much a dress rehearsal for the marathon, where we try out energy gels, practice taking in water and put hard miles on the legs. They do tax the entire body, which is why we only do a couple of these long runs in the month or so before the marathon.

My run went pretty smoothly except near the end, when I started to feel a bit strange. It was as if my mind was starting to drift away from my body, and not in some Dead Head drum circle way, but in a “hey, this might not be a good thing” way. What I now believe I was starting to experience is what runners call hitting the wall.

The wall is the point after about 20 miles where the body can start to shut down. It is feared and respected by every marathon runner. It’s the perfect storm of mental, emotional and physical trouble.

The medical term for the wall is glycogen depletion onset. It’s less sexy but gives a clear idea that it means business. Basically, when you hit the wall your body switches priorities from delivering oxygen and nutrients to your brain and directing them to your muscles. The brain also stops producing dopamine, which can bring on depression (bummer). Other possible side effects of the wall read like a legal disclaimer for a pharmaceutical product: dizziness, muscle fatigue, headaches, muscle cramps, blurred vision and even hallucinations. If it could insult your mother, I’m sure it would do that as well.

There are precautions one can take to avoid hitting the wall, like starting off slow, taking in nutrition and not running marathons. But in the end, the wall calls the shots, and if a runner does hit the wall, the best they can do is try to keep their mind clear and their legs moving. This is the period where all the training is out the window and it comes down to survival. I imagine that it is a character-building experience, where we become a better person for surviving the pain (why can’t character just come easier, like out of a vending machine — but then that wouldn’t be character, that would be Funyuns).

In the end, however, I think the wall can develop more than character. I think it can develop faith, because when it comes down to it, that’s the only thing that can help us get through any walls we might face.


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