Posted by: Joe English | December 6, 2007

Racing: Hitting the wall and late mile motivation (part I)

A reader in Australia asked me great question today. Here’s a bit of the e-mail:

“. . .how do I get myself to finish a marathon after hitting the 20 mile wall when there are minimal spectators to cheer me on? The two times I ran [marathons in Chicago] I found out how significant the crowd’s participation was to me and my running especially after the 20 mile mark.

In Chicago we had a million spectators to keep the runners going. I am now living in Australia and it’s the opposite here.”

There are two pieces to this question: 1) hitting the wall at 20 miles and then 2) staying motivated late in a marathon with limited crowd support.

The wall: to hit it or not!
What I love about this question is that it presumes that runners will “hit the wall” at some point late in a marathon. The later stages of a marathon are always going to be tough, but the ultimate goal of practiced marathon runners is to avoid hitting the wall at all. Yes, late in the marathon, the pace should be feeling progressively more difficult. However, the ultimate goal should be to run out of gas AT the finish-line, not at mile 20.

Let’s look at “the wall” a little more. This expression bears some real truth to anyone who’s ever had it happen to them. At some point late in a race, it feels as if they’ve run smack into a wall. Their energy level drops significantly and they simply can’t run consistently any longer. Runners that have hit the wall, are grumpy, frustrated, tired, and sometimes even angry. But more than anything, they usually just want to get the race over with and they will usually continue to walk or jog to get there. Those last miles of a marathon after hitting the wall are not much fun. You may run 100 yards, or maybe a quarter of a mile, but then it’s often back to walking. Usually runners experience “the wall” between miles 18 and 22.

Who put that wall there anyway?
When runners hit that sudden stop late in the race, there are both physical and mental factors at play. For the most part, in my opinion, the wall is primarily attributable to three physical factors: pacing, nutrition and hydration. To boil it down, you’ve probably run too fast, run out of calories or depleted your fluids – or a combination of all three. That quick final drop in energy, when you feel as though you’ve run smack into a wall, is the point that you’ve finally exhausted the last of your remaining carbohydrate stores and your muscles just don’t have the fuel that they need to fire any longer.

This physical wall is then avoidable. It starts with a true understanding of your pace. When you’re running an even-pace, that is also your correct pace in the marathon, the pace will feel harder and harder throughout the race. It should feel easy in the first 10-12 miles then start feeling progressively harder. By mile 18 it should start feeling pretty tough, and in those last miles you should be “hanging on” but STILL RUNNING your pace or very near it. If you’ve really nailed your pace, then the analogy I like to give is that you’ll run out of gas right AT the finish line. This means that you’ve given your maximum effort – you couldn’t have gone one more step at that pace – and it should be your fastest possible marathon time as well. It does not mean sandbagging the pace in the first half, but rather knowing the pace you can evenly sustain for the entire 26.2 miles and then executing precisely on that target pace.

Note: this assumes that your goal is to run your marathon as fast as possible. There may be many other reasons to run a marathon that have little to do with going your fastest and it should be noted that this is simply one way of looking at this pacing question.

[This post continues. Click here to go to part II]

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  1. […] Posted on December 6, 2007 by coachjoeenglish [This is part II of a two-part article. Click here to go to the […]


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