Every year hundreds of thousands of runners will have the opportunity to "hit the wall." "The wall" is defined as that period in a marathon when things transition from being pretty hard to being really, really hard. It is the point where your body and mind are simultaneously tested. It's the perfect intersection of fatigue and diminished mental faculties. Or as you most likely remember it, it's the exact point where all your pre-race plans went out the window.
How you handle "the wall" can literally make or break your marathon. Read on to learn more about why "the wall" happens and how you make sure it doesn't derail your next big race.
How "The Wall" WorksMuch like the Bermuda Triangle, "the wall" is a simultaneously mythical yet very real space. You can't actually put yourself there on purpose, but you'll arrive there during your marathon. It operates as much on fear as it does the real world challenges that accompany covering 26.2 miles...which means you'll need to have your A game in place if you are going to surmount it.
Let's face it, 26.2 miles is a really, really long way to go. Doesn't matter how hard or fast you run it, it's still 26.2 miles. Most runners never cover the full distance during training; the closest you might come is 21 or 22 miles. In other words, very few runners actually encounter "the wall" in training. Seeing something for the first time on race day makes it significantly harder to prepare for and eliminate.
"The wall" feeds off the games your mind plays during the taper period. As you negotiate your race pacing plans based off of what you plan on running, there are two types of race paces: your "Could Pace" and your "Should Pace." You remember that one long run in week six when you just flew along and everything was perfect? Based on that day, plus perfect race-day conditions, you "could" run 7:45s on race day.
And then when the gun goes off and fully tapered, that 7:45/mile pace quickly becomes a few 7:25s until things really go badly later on. Every "could" mile split you run brings "the wall" that much closer and makes it that much bigger.
As anyone who has run a half marathon race or longer can attest, it's almost impossible to do simple math at the end of your race. We've all tried to figure out what our target finish time will be with 3.1 miles to go while running 8:30 pace...but few actually can. This is because at some point in your day, your body switches priorities from delivering oxygen/nutrients to your brain and directing them to your muscles.
Running is not a complicated mental activity, which means your brain can go on cruise control while your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and heart need more and more resources each mile. In other words, your mind is at it's weakest just when you hit "the wall" and you need it the most.