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Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Wall

"My father was very fond of the analogy of the Irish lads whose journey was blocked by a brick wall seemingly too high to scale. Throwing their caps over the wall, the lads had no choice but to follow."

-President Josiah Bartlett, "The West Wing"

Ah yes, the dreaded Wall.

Every runner has heard about it, and most of us have hit it at one point or another. It's the point at which your body does not want to go on. The point where the energy becomes harder to summon, and the mental strength isn't enough to pull you through anymore. Some talk about "bonking," or running out of energy, but I think the idea of a Wall is more accurate. Why? Because you can get over it.

The human body does not have an unlimited store of energy. At some point, the body stops processing glycogen (a quick and easy source of energy) and moves on to fat (which takes a lot more effort). For a standard trained runner, this point comes after about twenty miles. Naturally, I have one major issue with this fact: a marathon does not end at mile twenty. You've still got another 10K to go at that point. That's an awfully long way to go with no more energy.

This is why I prefer the term "hitting the Wall" to "bonking." If you think of this moment in terms of bonking, it means that you've got nothing left, and you are doomed to struggle through the last few miles, giving up whatever pace you've spent months working toward. The Wall, though, is not unbeatable. You can climb a wall. You can get over it, and when you're on the other side, there is nothing left to stop you. If you can beat the Wall, you can do anything.

When I am designing my training plans, I study as many different examples as I can find. I like to see how many miles they suggest, how much speed work is included, and most importantly, how long the long runs go. Most programs that I come across stop the mileage increase at 20 miles, which I do not understand. You're told to run right up to the Wall, say hello, and then head out for a Gatorade.

I think you have to go farther. At the very least, you should experience the Wall before you're in the race situation. There's nothing scarier than going farther than you ever have and feeling your body give up. Today, my goal was to go beyond the Wall. I didn't quite make it, but I did get a pretty good climb in, and that's what's most important.

The first two hours went by relatively easily. Even at my usual point of exhaustion, I felt strong enough to keep pushing, but I had two major problems. First, I've had a hard week of training, and second, I was running out of water. With new strength training exercises and decent mileage, I've used a lot more energy throughout the week than I usually do. I was getting tired, and my pace was slower than usual, but I still believe I could have made it, if it weren't for a wardrobe malfunction.

I felt it early. A slow drip on the back of my legs. I wasn't sweating yet, so I knew that it meant there was a problem with my water pack. I was hopeful that it wasn't too big of an issue, but I knew that I would have to conserve water as much as I could.

The Wall approached. I knew that I was nearing twenty miles, and my mind was working against me. I kept thinking of where to stop, when I might take a break, and every other situation in which I might end up quitting on this run. Each time, I told myself to keep going. Even out loud sometimes. I could feel the energy draining, but I had to keep pushing. I made my turn toward home with three miles to go. A few minutes went by, and it was time for another water break. I took a pull and knew there wasn't much left.

As the sun got higher, I got closer to home. Two miles to go, it was time for another water pull. I felt like I was gradually running up the side of the Wall, and was thrilled about the prospect of this possibly being my last water stop, when I tried my pull. Nothing. I was done. Shut down mode. No more water, no more run.

My beautiful, wonderful, unbeatable wife came and got me for the last two miles. I didn't beat the Wall today, but I gave it a hell of a fight. More importantly, I ran for longer today than I will, hopefully, during the race. By about 15 minutes. Victory. Every step over twenty miles was a victory, and four weeks from today, I'll do more miles in less time.

I will throw my cap over the Wall.

Saturday's workout:
70 degrees and dark at the start, 77 and sunny at the end
21.64 Miles

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