Thursday, July 16, 2009

What does it feel like to 'hit the wall'?

There's a scene in the 2007 romantic comedy "Run Fatboy Run" in which the main character, Dennis (played by "Star Trek's" Simon Pegg), hits the dreaded "wall" while running his first marathon.

He's out of energy yet miles from the finish line, and a hallucinatory fog quite literally places a brick wall directly in his path. Dennis proceeds to repeatedly throw himself into it, harder and harder, until finally, mercifully, he smashes through and continues on.

The term "hit the wall" is used to describe the condition of an athlete who has depleted his or her stores of glycogen in the liver and muscles, and results in a dramatic loss of energy. It's so brutal, some even think calling it a "wall" is putting it lightly. Paul Scott of Runner's World wrote a couple years back: "Marathoners used to call bonking 'hitting the wall,' but it's actually a bodily form of sedition. In some form or another, it becomes a collapse of the entire system: body and form, brains and soul."

As someone who's training for his first marathon, the threat of bonking seems very real ... and very intimidating -- although hitting the wall is not necessarily inevitable; as a very seasoned runner friend told me recently, "it doesn't happen to everyone."

Unfortunately, if it does happen to me, I suspect I'll know instantly that nothing could have been done to prepare for it. Still, in the interest of getting at least some vague idea, I recently asked real runners (i.e. friends on Facebook) to describe the sensation.

Siobhan: "It feels like your legs can't support you and they turn to jelly ... the only thing that keeps you going is the cheering crowd and knowing that the finish line is just a few miles away."

OK, so basically: It hurts. But keep moving -- it's almost over. It'll all be worth it in the end.

Brian: "It's not that you can't catch your breath, it's that you feel like you can't move. The brain is mush, the body is mush, it's the single-mindedness of the finish line and stopping the suffering that keeps you going."

So basically: It hurts. But keep moving -- it's almost over. It'll all be worth it in the end.

Laurena: "All I remember is at Mile 23 the cheering started to piss me off, there was a nasty smell of beer in the air and I started yelling at the poor friend of mine who jumped on the course to run a mile with me. Seriously, when I'm trying to finish a marathon don't ask me, 'So ... New York next?' Then I had a rush of adrenaline and got back on the ball to finish strong."

Basically: It hurts. But keep moving -- it's almost over. It'll all be worth it in the end.

Stacey: "The only time I've ever hit the wall was on the bike at the Over the Mountain tri. I felt like I couldn't move, I was talking myself out of even finishing the bike. My head was nodding and I felt very foggy. Carrying the bike on my back sounded like more fun than riding it if I had to climb one more mountain. I told myself that I was just going to give up, be done, not even do the run. This feeling lasted about 20 minutes (a lifetime at the moment it was happening) and once I was over the last hardest hill, I regained composure and got the excitement back again and couldn't wait for the run and to see that finish line. I fell to the ground after I crossed the finish line and cried -- because I beat my target goal."

It hurts. But keep moving -- it's almost over. It'll all be worth it in the end.

Anyway, what I took away from these responses is this: I might be able to crudely replicate the feeling of hitting the wall, perhaps by throwing myself against the nearest brick rowhouse over and over and over again. But the truth is, it's probably best just not to let the wall worry me, to not obsess about it.

If it happens, it happens. It'll hurt, without a doubt. But if I keep moving? It'll all be worth it in the end.


Anonymous said...

Take it from a finish line junkie, it will be worth it in the end.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I don't think you push through the 'wall.' I think you actually end up stopping when you 'hit the wall.' I also think someone has confused 'hitting the wall' with 'runner road rage' which hits everyone sometime after mile 20. Personally, I hate everyone after mile 23. And sometimes after mile 10 in a half...

Anonymous said...

you're not describing the wall, you're talking about something else. it's "the wall" because, well, it's a wall. when you hit it, you don't go further.

i hit the wall once on a solo 107 mile bicycle ride into a headwind on a humid 95 degree July day, 12 years ago. i hit the wall climbing into Columbia, SC, at rush hour, mile 105. as i lay there, unable to move or to think clearly, a nurse stopped. i convinced her i DIDN'T need an ambulance, and that any minute i'd get out from under my expensive bike in this ultra-scary part of town and finish my ride up the hill. isn't the rain nice and cooling? sez i. i'm just going to lie here and rest a bit. later, i was able to get my cell phone out of my fanny pack, and convince a cabbie to come scoop me up. when i got to the hotel, my friends were waiting, with beer, and put me in a cold tub.

later that night, the bass player asked a mutual friend why +++ - who usually jumps up and down at the front of the stage after the first half of those 200 mile RTs - was sitting motionless on a chair, now and then sliding off and being picked up by friends.

THAT, my friend, is the wall. anything less is just part of the fun!

Anonymous said...

To Anon 6:08pm -- what you have described isn't hitting the wall. It's heat stroke.

Anonymous said...

Do not overestimate your ability to "push through." Respect the distance! You must put in the training. The body will adapt, if given the chance(s). While there are outliers who can accomplish great things on talent and genes, most of us need to get in a couple 20s or even more. My best prep was running 24 miles 5 weeks before the event, and 20 at 3 weeks out.

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Anonymous said...

I decided to chime in because I think I hit the wall today. I'm not a runner, however, I've been training running two miles for a few months and out of pure macho adrenalin decided to enter a 3.3 mile run at a festival. Decided to follow the High School kid who had won it the year before. I generally run two miles without a problem and good time for my age. So I started to run feeling invincible, but after just a 1/4 of a mile I knew something was wrong. Humidity was at it's worst in this hick town and the pace was sort of faster than I'm used to. To make the story short, even a 9 year old girl pass me by and after 1.5 miles, that high school kid that I wanted to follow passed me by for a second time (we were running 1.1 mile laps). Within the two miles I had stopped to walk three time, Something I've never done before. My legs felt like they were stuck to the ground and my breathing was hard. After I completed my two miles I stopped. Didn't run the 3rd mile because by then I was feeling like the biggest idiot and couldn't stand the cheering anymore. I don't know what it was and I don't want to encounter it again. I have decided to go at it again and practice until I can at least see that High School kid crossing the finish line ahead of me.