Sunday, May 1, 2011

Surviving the Wall: A Rookie Runner Reflects On His Second Marathon

It's funny how my thoughts and moods change before, during and after a marathon. Leading up to the 2011 Illinois Marathon in Champaign-Urban, I was filled with the excitement and hopes of reaching my goal time mixed with worries that maybe I didn't train good enough. I had fears of hitting the wall early or bonking out of the race entirely.

And We're Off!

All the common sense in the world it seems, cannot overcome my ego's desire to exceed beyond my body's limits. My well-rested muscles were stored up with eighteen weeks worth of training. The excitement in the air was almost palpable, flavored with the anticipation of running my best race. The announcer's voice counting down the start time and the thumping music from the loud speakers had my adrenalin going. I kept trying to remind myself to start out easy, to conserve my energy for later on when I would need it most. That strategy worked for about a mile into the run. Then I started to pick up my pace. Yes, I could do this!

Then From Out of Nowhere, This Wall Came and Jumped Right In Front of Me!

I think it was mile 15 when I decided I should perhaps pull my pace back a bit. I checked my heart-rate; Good. Breathing; Good. Legs...legs? Um, Okay. I started counting off each mile one at a time. All I had to do was keep moving and all would be well. I dropped the idea of coming in ahead of my goal time and began to focus on just putting one leg in front of the other. Then at 22 miles my calves turned into concrete blocks. It was all I could do to walk. The wall had struck. I was done for.

Sour Grapes Are Best Served With Self-pity.

I saw my original goal fade quickly away. My feet were heavy hammers hitting the road with each step. The city would probably be sending me a bill for road repairs. I saw one of the sag wagons drive past. I could hop on one of them, throw in the towel and ride the "wagon of shame." I could give up and just quit. The internal lecture began, "Why do I punish myself like this? I'm not cut out for this crap. I should just stick to the shorter distance races. This really isn't worth it."

An Ounce of Pride Makes It Through Another Mile.

Another sag wagon passed by. The driver looked at me with a sympathetic question on his face. No, I couldn't bring myself to hop on that wagon any more than I could have sprinted the rest of the way in. I shook my head and waved him past. Then I looked up to see mile marker 23. I noticed other runners ahead of me and behind me. Some were jogging out their last miles, some were walking, one had taken a moment to rest against a fence post and stretch, but none were hopping on the wagon of shame. There remained a few spectators along the route, cheering us on as we struggled to push ourselves forward to our goal.

Our Goal

Our goal was to finish what we had started. We who lagged behind would not quit. We encouraged each-other to keep moving, knowing the pain and struggle we were each going through, and silently chuckling between ourselves as the remaining spectators continued to cheer us onward. They were greatly appreciated however, providing the encouragement we needed to keep moving for just a few more miles. The hammers replacing my feet were burning when I came upon the mile 24 marker. Trudging forward, those of us who could muster the strength jogged through the intersections, where police were keeping impatient motorists at bay so we could cross safely. Before I knew it, mile-marker 25 appeared up ahead.

So How Do I Want to Do This?

The next marker would be 26 miles, and after that it would be just 352 yards to the finish line. I had wanted to be here much sooner. I had wanted to blast through this thing. I had wanted more out of myself than I could deliver. "Why do I punish myself like this?" Indeed. Soon, less than a mile from the finish, I could hear the announcer's voice and the music from the loudspeakers. I needed to decide if I could squeeze just a little bit more "run" out of these concrete legs to finish this thing off. I felt just a pinch of adrenaline make it's way into my system and started to pick up my pace.

Crossing the Line

When you run across the finish line of a marathon, no matter how horrible you feel, there's the elation of finishing something you started. Your mind whirls back over the past 26.2 miles, over the weeks of training, and over all of the thoughts and emotions that brought you to this point. I didn't run this marathon the way I wanted to, but I did run it, and that would just have to do.


After a run like this your muscles ache. At best, there are small tears in the muscle tissue and maybe some strained ligaments. It's time to be kind to yourself and allow your body to heal. There is also the mind to contend with. As I sat on the ground, letting my bare feet rest, stretching out my achy muscles and swapping stories with a fellow runner, I looked at my time. It was better than last year's time at least, and going over the "should haves" and "could haves" wasn't going to change my results. So I could do better, right? Sure I could, but I would never know for sure if I didn't try again. So...


Sitting in the passenger seat on the drive back home, I imagined some morning next December, dragging myself reluctantly out of bed, bundling up, throwing on those damned running shoes and hitting the pavement again in sub-freezing weather. I imagined feeling the cold air biting at my cheeks, getting quizzical looks from the neighborhood folks and seeing that far off finish line in my mind. "The registration for next year's marathon is opening up in just a couple of months." I thought, stretching my sore, tired muscles a little bit, "Yes, I could do this!"

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