The Wall (and What To Do When You Hit It)

The wall is unceremonious when it hits. It is anti-climactic. There are no niceties, no formalities, no punctilios of impending doom. There is no, “Excuse me, miss, I’m terribly sorry, but do you mind if I step in and destroy your hopes and dreams and bring the labor of the past five months all to naught?” Instead, it creeps up behind us and whacks us on the back of the head, sending us sprawling into the dark abyss of race day disaster.

Doesn’t it know how much these races mean to us? Doesn’t it realize how hard we’ve trained? Doesn’t it understand what we’ve endured in pursuit of a PR? Doesn’t it care?

As it turns out, no. No, it doesn’t.

That’s because the wall is rude. Super rude. In fact, I’m always shocked by how rude it is. Here we are—after months upon months of anticipation, after hours upon hours of training, after surviving miles upon miles of long runs and tempo runs and track workouts and pre-dawn alarms and rain and cold and heat and wind and cyclones and hurricanes and other meteorological conditions generally associated with the apocalypse—here we are, mere steps from victory, and the wall just waltzes up unannounced and punches us in the throat.

Don’t be fooled by semantics. You don’t hit the wall. The wall hits you.

We all experience the wall for different reasons. Perhaps we ran the first miles of the race a bit too fast. Perhaps we had insufficient sleep or fuel in the weeks leading up to the race. Perhaps it just wasn’t our day. The only constant about the wall is that it is sudden. And overwhelming. And (let’s be honest here) soul crushing.

But there is good news amid the doom and gloom. The wall may be one heckuva stinker, and it may even (temporarily) trample your chances of racing a PR, but it doesn’t render you helpless. You alone determine how you do—or don’t—finish a race.

The wall doesn’t always hit, but by keeping some mental ammunition close at hand, you can be prepared in case it does. As a wise man once said, “You can respect the wall, but you don’t have to be afraid of it.”

Don’t panic. The first and foremost rule. Stay calm and don’t give in at the first strike. You may find the wall is temporary and get your legs back in a couple of miles. You may not. But either way, don’t panic. When the wall hits, start hitting back with the mental tools you’ve acquired for this very situation.

Think like a survivor. Take emotion out of the picture. It doesn’t matter if you feel happy, sad, frustrated, angry, tired, or disappointed. Sentiment can wait until after the race. The only thing that matters now is survival. Be pragmatic. Be ruthless. What do you need to do to keep putting one foot in front of the other?

Keep setting small, reachable goals. Don’t think about the finish line. The distance may seem overwhelming. Instead, set your sights on something closer. The next water station. The next mile marker. That guy in the gorilla suit. Pick a reachable goal, reach it, and then set another one.

Accept the pain… and move on. So it hurts. So what? Remind yourself that pain isn’t a part of who you are—it’s just a temporary sensation. Give yourself a no-bull pep talk: “Okay. It hurts. Races hurt. Get over it.” By separating yourself from how you feel, you’ll be less inclined to give fatigue and pain so much credit.

Rehearse a mid-race concession speech. Seriously. Tell yourself you can quit the moment you think of a legit concession speech to give to your family and friends. You won’t be able to. Trust me. I’ve tried. Whenever I try to answer the question “Why did you quit?” the best I can come up with is “I was tired” or “It was hot” or “I was… tired.” LAME. What if General George Washington and the Continental Army quit during the Battle of Yorktown because it was “too hilly?” What if William Wallace told his troops that they would never give up their freedom… unless they “got really tired?” Exactly. Plus, not only is a legit concession speech impossible to write, but it kills time and, at the very least, is mildly distracting.

Become Pollyanna. Play the “glad game.” Find any positives you can and hang on to them for dear life. A small downhill. That cloud that covered the sun. The cool water you splashed on your face at the last water station. Any brief moments of distraction. Focus on the positives.

Be encouraged by the people that pass you. I know. It’s never fun being passed. But distance runners are a tightly knit family, and nowhere does our community shine more than when a fellow runner is struggling. People will run by and tell you to keep running, to pick up your knees, to tuck in with them and hold pace. Do what they tell you. If they say you are looking strong, believe them. If they say you can keep going, know that they are right. Because they are.

Don’t just finish. Finish strong. It’s tough to keep pushing yourself after your race goals have long come and gone. It’s easy to fall into a mopey fatalism and decide, “Today wasn’t my day. No point in torturing myself.” But as Steve Prefontaine said, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” After you hit the wall, your best may be a slow jog. It may be a shuffle. It may be a walk. It may even be a hybrid fetal-position-stumble-crawl. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you don’t throw in the towel and don’t let yourself get comfortable. Keep pushing. Keep giving your all. You owe it to the sport. You owe it to your training. You owe it to yourself.

Let the wall make you grateful for the races that do go right. It’s easy to get caught up in PRs. It’s easy to take good races for granted. But so many factors have to fall into place for a marathon to go as planned. Sickness, injuries, fatigue, outside stressors, and race day conditions all threaten our performance. Let the tough races remind you just how special the good races really are.

Be proud. PRs are hard, but pushing through the wall is harder. We all feel strong when nothing happens to be taxing us at the moment. But it is how we respond when faced with challenges—with fatigue, with disappointment, with discomfort—that reveals what we’re really made of. There’s a difference between ego and pride. The first is concerned with numbers on a clock. The second cares about the effort put into the race, even when our goals are no longer attainable. PRs may build our confidence, but the wall builds our character. 

Connect With Us

see the latest from Fleet Feet St. Louis