Hitting the wall during a marathon run can be a character-testing moment. Especially if you’re unsure of what to expect when it happens.
When that moment of sudden fatigue brings your workout or race progress to a grinding halt, these are the tactics you need to smash straight through the wall.
Expert: Dave Essinger is an ultra-marathon runner who takes part in 100-mile races, sports writer, and author of the new book Running Out (dave-essinger.com)
When you hit the wall, it never always gets worse
This is a common saying in ultra marathons. On some level, we’re all too smart to believe the above maxim.
At some point, things will just get bad and stay there, and that’ll be what kills you instead of making you stronger.
As far as I know, Nietzsche didn’t rise from the grave, shake it off, and say, “Wow, that sucked.”
In a race, the idea is that if you keep going long enough, something won’t get worse.
To put it another way: something always goes wrong. But does that mean everything?
Everything literally never goes wrong so focus your attention on the one thing going right.
Embrace your sweat equity when hitting the wall
Training is an investment. When you get to the point where you’re tired, that is kind of the point.
Think of it as an opportunity, one you’ve worked hard to get to. Now you get to teach your body how to run when it’s tired, lift more when it’s spent.
If you quit here, not only do you waste an opportunity, but you have to go through all the suffering you’ve already done, again, just to get back to the same choice and point you’re at now.
The wall will always be there, and it’s a fight just to get to it.
Make it hard to quit
Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with psychologically gaming your future self, when planning a run or a workout.
A long out-and-back course ensures, at the very least, that if you push yourself to halfway, you’re going to get your mileage knocked off one way or another.
When you’re in a long race, and your resolve is weakening, don’t let your mind linger in the places it’s easy to quit: a comfy aid station or maybe the start-finish line where you parked your car.
Keep it moving out of there, and take away any options that don’t include finishing.
Embrace the unknown unknowns of the wall
If there’s anyone who knows war, it’s Donald Rumsfeld, so embrace his philosophy when you’re about to battle a big run, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns.
That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
There are things you can prepare for on race day: blisters; hills; cramps. There are possible variables you’re aware of: rain; heat; stomach issues.
Then there will be the problems you can’t predict: your drop bag getting lost, you getting lost, twisting an ankle. Starters prepare for everything.
Finishers manage what can’t be prepared for.
Break up your problems into small pieces
No one runs 100 miles, or even does 100 reps, all at once. It would be crippling to think too much about how much you have ahead of you.
Take it in steps. One rep, one step. Just do the one you’re doing now. Then do another one.
Sniff out your body’s lies
Or rather, your mind lies about what your body can do.
This makes sense: pushing your limits too often and too hard can get unsustainable and counterproductive.
But “the wall” is your body running out of its favorite fuel so it’s your mind’s job is to dissuade you from digging too deep into your bodyfat reserves.
Biochemically, it reacts like you’re dying.
However, you’re not. No matter how toned you are, every healthy runner carries enough energy to cover 200-300 miles, burning bodyfat alone.
Tap into that when you “think” you’ve run out of gas.
Remember, the wall is only pain
You knew it was going to hurt going in, right? You signed up for it, heck, maybe you paid big money for the privilege of your current suffering.
If it were easy, everyone would do it so think about past workouts you’ve pushed through, and how they made you stronger afterwards, physically and psychologically.
Now, think about how much more you can do at this moment rather than what you could do a month, a year ago.
Then think about where you’ll be a month from now, a year from now. You’re going there, and this is the temporary pain you chose to make it happen.
Do it because you can
There will come a day when you can’t keep up the pace, can’t lift what you used to and can’t even finish a pithy little race. It will happen – no doubt.
There will be a day when you can’t even stand up. There are millions of people who’d kill to be able to do what you’re doing right now, and the day will come when you can’t either.
But that day is not today. Say this to yourself when quitting enters your head.
Clock in with no hope of back-pedalling
Understand that it’s going to take as long as it does. Spending an entire workout dreading it or hating what’s to come is no fun, and maybe it’ll hurt for a good while, but hating it is a choice.
A 100-mile race on a tough course is likely to take me over 24 hours, and I’d just be miserable thinking about how much more time lies ahead.
Instead, try just accepting that you’ll be out there as long as it takes. This is like breaking any long workout into pieces, but also different: once you quit bargaining with yourself and just acknowledge that you’re doing the whole thing, it’s relaxing to know what’s going to happen.
Value your commitment
The Hagakure, the book of the Samurai, advises that, if you go into battle hoping to live, you will surely die, whereas if you commit yourself determined to perish, you might through luck survive.
The moral here is that hesitation and self-preservation stand in the way of success. If you were to start a race worrying about what you’ll do if you get hurt, you’d have no business running that race.
Commit to the consequences, of whatever you’ve determined to do.
The Hagakure tells us, “No matter if the enemy has thousands of men, there is fulfillment in simply standing them off and being determined to cut them all down, starting from one end. You will finish the greater part of it.”
Take-home message: go until you can’t! You never know how short your life might be.
Ask yourself this: who inspires you?
This shouldn’t be some distant elite athlete who you follow on social media. Who do you know who has kept going when everyone else would have quit?
Maybe you’ve watched a parent work hard for days and months and years. Maybe you’ve seen a friend dig deeper than they thought they could.
Maybe your own kid is the one on the field who takes the hardest hit and gets right back up again.
Think for a minute how you can be worthy of that. Now think of who’s looking back at you, making you their own example, for their own inspiration, closer-to-home…
Volunteer and witness
Go watch a local race or any amateur athletic event. Better yet, volunteer – hand out water, pitch in at an aid station, or help at the finish line.
The winners will just about be looking all right, as will the walkers bringing up the rear.
In the middle of the pack, though, you’ll find the little kids sprinting it out to the finish, or the middle-aged guy dry-heaving at the end of the finish chute.
Who’s putting in the most effort on the day? It may come easily for the leaders, but they’re not usually the ones trying the hardest.
It’s good for you to see what other people go through so you can see what the human body and mind is capable of and how different people handle running through the wall.
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