Hitting "The Wall" in a Marathon

Updated: Jan 8, 2020

In a few weeks time I'll be flying out to Sierra Leone to volunteer at the Sierra Leone Marathon for Street Child, and with the London Marathon on today, I thought I'd post about my own marathon experience back in 2015.

I was in agony at the end, and didn't really enjoy it in truth, but my Dad recommended I write down what it felt like to go through that much pain while it was all still burning fresh in my mind. So if you've ever wondered what is going through runner's minds during a race, have a read of my post race thoughts: Most people say "don't go out too fast". I think (thought) I'm better than most people though, and honestly believed if I pushed myself, I could make it under 3hrs. I'd ignored plenty of running advice previously and it had all worked out fine. "You can't train for a marathon in 9 weeks" "You can't continue to run with shin splints"

"And you definitely can't do both those things when training for your first marathon"

I started out in January with a big ego and very high ambitions. Then I started training, and slowly but surely my ego shrank (size of running ego is inversely proportional to pain experienced), so by race day I knew a sensible time to go for was 3h15. I was proud of myself for being so sensible as well (ego rose slightly, error). I moved back through the crowd and lined up with the slower pace setter (running guru with a flag indicating "follow me if you want this time"). He went off quick, the bastard. He was running a good 30s quicker than the pace he should have, and I assumed it was just to thin the group out a little, so I kept up.

Little things going wrong can add up to quite serious problems later on. I'd never done a big run in my vest before, and was quickly introduced to the ever so sexy phenomenon of arm pit chafing. The paramedics, god bless them, know that runners are idiots, and kindly wave their Vaseline covered hands out so we can steal it and slather it in all the bad places. I also needed to wee (I'm not certain I did, but I felt it was best to wee anyway and get it off my mind). The trouble was, when I popped out the portaloo, my pace man was 500m further away from me. I'll catch him up in no time I thought. I never caught him. I was on my own, but I was running a good pace, so I was happy and confident. I flew across Tower Bridge. It was busier and louder than I could have ever imagined. I looked up to take in the crowds and the scenery, soaked it all in, and thought "this is excellent, why doesn't everybody do this?". Before I knew it I was off the bridge and mentally preparing myself for the second half.

I got a little bored around Canary Wharf to begin with. I saw a few important faces, waved at and kissed all the appropriate people, and just kept concentrating 2m in front of my feet. My pace was good, but I no longer felt great. My legs were beginning to feel heavy, and I feared something bad was coming. This, I was most definitely right about.

I'd like to introduce you to The Wall. 1,325 people overtook me in the last 4 miles. Here's how that feels: I felt it coming, I knew it was coming, and I thought the worst part would be the fear and suspense of not knowing how much longer I had until it hit me in the face. I was wrong. It turns out the suspense is not the worst part. The pain is. It didn't just hit me in the face. The pain crawled into every joint from my hips to my blister ridden and bruised toes. It also crawled into my brain however. I became angry and frustrated. My brain was arguing with my legs, and both parties were losing the argument.

There was a precise point it hit. There was a 180 degree bend somewhere around the wasteland that is Canary Wharf. I thought I'd be smart and take the inside line, reducing the distance I had to run. However, I cut the corner so tight, I practically came to a stand still at the apex of the corner. I slowed down so much, and my legs wouldn't respond when I tried to accelerate out the corner again.

Everything immediately started creaking, and there was a very distinct sharp pain on the outside of my kneecap. People have since told me this was my IT band, and that is a shitty injury to get rid of at any point in time, let alone mid marathon. At this point I knew the next hour would be seriously horrible. Luckily I'd trained through enough horrible to think that I knew what was coming. I've hit the wall before, and I'll hit it again. But I'll survive. I might not make 3h15 now, but I'll definitely be under 3h30.

With my knee cap pulsating, hip grinding against its socket, and newly ripened blister squelching in my shoe, I searched for ways of taking my mind off it all. I tried music, I tried listening to the crowd cheer my name, and I tried hanging onto people's coat tails. All the gels and water in the world couldn't pick me up from here either.

No matter what I did, people were flooding past me.

How the fuck am I still looking at fucking Canary Wharf? Six times I turned a corner to be staring at those bastard towers again. I needed to see Big Ben, then I knew I was on the home straight.

It felt like my brain was melting. I couldn't concentrate. I felt delirious. I couldn't see the faces screaming at me in the crowd. Am I being overtaken by a man in full cricket whites, pads, and helmet? Is he real? He evaporated in front of me, he can't have been real.

I couldn't stop. If I stopped, my legs would not start again. My hamstrings were so tight. I was one ambitious stride length away from a crippling cramp. Pigeon steps were the way forward. If John Wayne and a penguin had a love child - that was my technical analysis of my running style.

Hundreds were chanting my name in the closing miles. I eventually realised this was a bad sign; them pitying the most desperate looking person they could see.

Time was stretched and slowing down. I kept forgetting which mile I was on. I was just desperately peering along the embankment looking for Big Ben to show its giant self and guide me home.

With what felt like the slowest mile of my life (I was right about this too. It was indeed the slowest mile I had ever run), I found Big Ben and turned into St. James Park, I knew I'd make it. One more push.

800m to go! Fuck that. They have actually got this wrong. I got so angry at that sign, it is hard to put into words, so I won't.

I desperately tried a sprint finish, ending with a morale boost, trying in vain to catch the guy in front. He tried a sprint finish too, lent forwards too far, face planted, and took out the woman behind him. I strolled past, upright and smug, to take the victory in the race only I knew I was racing. They all count.

According to my watch I squeaked in under 3h30. It turned out my fancy GPS watch switched itself off in the tunnels, and I missed 3h30 too. By 17 painful seconds. It didn't feel good to finish. I felt horrible. I felt depressed, and I felt completely emotionally drained. Apparently I looked like shit too, but people were too scared to tell me. I'd actually turned the colour of death (a lovely blue grey if you're wondering). I did not want to put myself through this again. Never ever. This was the first time I'd ever done an event and not felt a huge buzz at the end. Considering I'd just burnt 3,000 calories, I couldn't eat and wasn't even hungry, which really worried me. However, over the course of the next few hours, some blood began flow around my body again, and I even managed my first beers in weeks. I perked up, my mood improved, and I ate loads of Mexican food.

A good 4 hours after hitting The Wall, I felt like a normal human again and some sense of achievement filtered through. Safe to say I learnt a lot of lessons that day. I think I went out too fast. I find marathons 10 times harder than a half, and most of the hard work is all mind games; tricking yourself you are comfortable with the pain. It will certainly leave its mark on you, physically and emotionally, and you will learn you are capable of so much more than you ever thought possible, which is an adage you can transfer to any walk of life.

I'll do it all again no doubt, and I'll moan about it then too.

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