Running jargon busting No. 6: The Wall

Sample usage: “Everything was going fine… and then I hit The Wall”

Also known as: The Bonk (as in ‘bonking’, snigger)

The Wall isn’t a real thing, of course. Well, unless you’re into those crazy assault course race things – in which case a wall is probably one of the less unpleasant obstacles that you’ll have to deal with. But since I’ve yet to branch into the world of such events (just don’t see the appeal…), I’m going to write about The Wall that you hit during long runs.

Most runners have heard of The Wall – and chances are most runners who have done a long race such as a marathon will have ‘hit the wall.’ But from what I’ve read, and people I’ve talked to, every runner’s encounter with The Wall is a unique experience. That, contrarily, makes it both quite simple to describe yet hard to explain.

In that way, for me, The Wall is something akin to The Force from Star Wars (bear with me here…). Those of you who grew up with the original trilogy came to revere The Force as a mystical, unexplainable, almost mythical power. And then George Lucas made The Phantom Menace, and introduced midi-chorions – small, microscopic creatures that group within certain people in high numbers, connecting them to The Force. Once The Force could be explained through (admittedly made-up) science, The Force suddenly became a whole lot less cool. (Well, that and the fact the prequel trilogy was a bit ropey…).

Likewise, The Wall can be explained through science: it’s the onset of sudden fatigue and exhaustion, when your running efforts finally deplete the glycogen stores in your body. Thats why it’s important to take on fluid, food and fuel such as energy gels when you’re doing a long run.

But science doesn’t really explain The Wall. Because it’s taken on a broader meaning, reflecting the fact that The Wall is really as much of a mental challenge as a physical one. Because of that, it’s quite an individual thing – so my description of it might not match up with yours at all. So what follows is purely my experience…

To me, The Wall is the point of a race where the pain and exhaustion hits you hard, and you start to wonder if it’s actually possible to finish. It’s the point where you find out what you’re really made of: do you listen to your brain and your aching body and stop, or do you shut it all out and find a way to push through?

I hit my version of The Wall somewhere in the 21st mile of this year’s London Marathon. My early pace had been to do miles in the mid-7m 20s bracket, and I’d begun to slow from that as I got into the second half of the race and my legs began to ache. It was tough going from there, but I kept pushing through.

In the 18th mile, my pace dipped to 7m 41s; the 19th and 20th miles were doing in 7m 55s and 7m 48s respectively. I’d slowed, but I was still holding on. Then came the 21st mile, which is somewhere near Limehouse in the section of the race that winds around London’s Docklands, and my pace began to drop off. Witness:

Mile 21: 8m 23s

Mile 22: 8m 30s

Mile 23: 8m 58s

Mile 24: 9m 02s

Mile 25: 9m 22s

Mile 26: 9m 49s

It hurt. It really hurt. Everything hurt. My legs burned with pain. My brain began to tell me that I was out of my depth, that I couldn’t do this. That my legs wouldn’t hold up. That I couldn’t make it without stopping. That, maybe, I couldn’t make it even if I did stop.

It took some resolve to press on, and to keep myself running at a reduced pace. I remember being passed by a lot of runners in those final few painful miles – and the only ones I was passing where those in a worse state than me; the one who were either reduced to walking (well, limping), or were forced to stop.

I managed to push through. You hear some people talk about breaking through The Wall and then speeding up again. I clearly didn’t. But nor did The Wall succeed in stopping me in my tracks. I managed to run to the finish line – even if the last few miles were probably more of a painful shuffle.

Anyway, that’s what happened when I hit my version of The Wall. But conversations with other runners and my basic common sense tells me my experiences are likely very different to others.

So, The Wall can be explained by talk of depleted glycogen and midi-chorians reserves (well, something like that), but it’s more than that. The Wall is the point where the physical and mental aspects of running a marathon converge to challenge you like you’ve probably never been challenged before.

My advice: when you hit The Wall, keep on running at it. That’s all you can do…

Click here for previous running jargon busting entries

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