The Wall! – Sounds scary doesn’t it? That feeling of sheer exhaustion is something that the vast majority of us will only experience a few times in our lives so I guess for many, it is the fear of the unknown. It certainly was for me as I stood on the start line of the New York City Marathon (my first marathon) knowing that I had simply not done enough training and knowing that it was going to be a world of pain. That, I can live with but it was ‘the wall’ that I had never experienced.
I had a friend, Mark, who got carried away the year earlier and found himself sitting in on the leading pack of women elite runners. I waved at him as I sipped my beer outside a bar at the 17 mile mark. He wanted to break three hours, he was on for sub 2:30!! We shook our heads and laughed as we knew what he knew – he was going to hit the wall – big time!
He looked great at the time though - really smooth and easy. But, it was only a couple of miles later that he went from great to desperation. He was begging people in the crowd to give him food and the good people of NYC were handing him pieces of orange as I recall. How does that happen though?
It might be that your body will just want to throw in the towel. Your legs feel like jelly or perhaps lead. Every step is arduous. Other times it might be your mind saying stop, this is just too painful. As with Mark, you could become a little desperate, a little disorientated, you may even start hallucinating and certainly, self-doubt will kick in.
However, we live in an age where we have more knowledge. More training know-how and more nutritional expertise. There is also the addition of nutritional aids to help us buffer this onset of extreme tiredness that leads to the mental desperation.
Fuelling the body is important and doesn’t just need to happen on race day. You may have heard of carbo loading, but more of that later.
Fuel is stored in the muscles in the form of glycogen or in the body as fat. If running hard, the body will use its more immediate form of energy, the glycogen. When running normally however, the body will use a combination of both and when the body is depleted of glycogen, it’ll start to rely on the fat but this is not all good! When reliant on just fat, the muscles ability to function normally is greatly reduced.
So, we need to keep glycogen levels up before and on race day to avoid the lead leg feeling.
The other thing to be aware of is your blood sugar level. If this drops too low, you will start to get that confused feeling, not being able to think straight and at its worst, you may start to hallucinate!
Ten days before the marathon you should start to taper down your training and your body will go in to a semi-rested state, recovering to some extent from the strenuous training programme. Alan Storey, coach to many international marathon runners will prescribe the following for runners hoping to break 3:30hrs: “Carbohydrate loading to build up muscle glycogen stores requires a 15 mile slow run 7 days before the race followed by a 24 hour fast taking in only quality water. After the fasting period, at least 700 grams of carbohydrate should be consumed daily”. If you are not as trained as these sub 3:30hr runners, we suggest running a shorter 8m perhaps a week before the race but follow the programme.
Take carbs with you in the form of gels sweets like jelly sweets which are high in sugar. I ran NYC with a money belt on under my vest packed with gels but also a chewy bar which I soon realised was not a good idea. I soon found out that chewing and running uphill has an adverse effect on your breathing! Stick to the gels and follow these two top tips:
The long runs you have done in your training would have trained the body to use your fat stores which is a good thing as fat gives you more calories than glycogen, but you need to ensure you top up the glycogen with the gels and sweets. Plan to take at regular intervals, you will really need them after 16 miles or so.
Read our full article on race day hydration but the key summary for race day is below:
Major marathon races will provide water every mile and energy drinks every 5k maybe. Smaller races may just provide water every 5k so it is important to find out who is providing what and when.
Hitting the wall will be delayed if it happens at all with the tips above, but running a marathon for most of us is not easy and you will feel very tired at some point. For what it’s worth, here are my top tips for when things get tough.
Check out our article on running a fast marathon, it's written by an amazing marathon coach and give you some top tips.
Look around you, take encouragement from the crowds and try to enjoy yourself. Good luck!