You may have heard running a marathon compared with giving birth. It takes hours, it hurts like hell, but once it’s over you forget all the pain and feel the kind of high that only comes from knowing you’ve achieved something REALLY BIG.
And like a first-time expectant mother, who really wants to stop watching One Born Every Minute but is glued to the screen in abject terror, first-time marathon runners can’t resist reading and listening to every tale of marathon hell they can find – particularly if it involves hitting the wall. And if you’re heading to the start line a second time, having been through a particularly difficult first marathon, you might be struggling to switch off those memories of sobbing your way down the Embankment.
So I would like to offer a few words of encouragement from someone who has run several marathons, sometimes hitting the wall, sometimes swerving it, sometimes bumping into it then clambering over it.
“Hitting the wall” is a term used to mean the point at which you run out of energy. In fact, you haven’t completely run out of energy, you’ve just run out of easily accessible energy in the form of glycogen, the carbs your body stores in your muscles and liver. Most of us store enough glycogen to carry us around about two hours of steady marathon running. When the glycogen runs out, if you haven’t been topping up, your body switches to using fat for fuel and it’s this switch that causes the infamous sensation of your legs turning to lead and your entire vocabulary turning to swearwords.
There are two ways you can avoid this. The first and simplest is to keep topping up those carbs. You’ll ideally have practised this to make sure you can stomach it. Take 60 to 90g of carbs every hour you’re running (the more you weigh, the more you need; although the more you can take – regardless of weight – without upsetting your stomach, the better the effect). At the lower end this is two to three gels per hour, or a litre of isotonic energy drink. For a first marathon, stick to sport-specific fuels like gels and drinks because figuring out the carbs in real food is much trickier, and they’re harder to digest.
The second way you can avoid hitting that wall hard is to just take it steady. The slower you run, the more comfortable you are, the greater proportion of energy your body can use from fat. Even the slimmest of us has a pretty plentiful fat store so you won’t run out during the course of a marathon. As a rule of thumb, even though you’re racing, you should be running at a pace slow enough to sustain a conversation, right up to the last couple of miles.
Beyond the traditional definition of hitting the wall – and the physical causes of it – there is a strong psychological element to getting through that last 6.2 miles. It boils down to a number of things: the fact that you probably topped out at about 20 miles in training and have no idea if you can run any further than that; the fact that, however well trained you are, it just bloody hurts to run 26.2 miles; the fact that you’re now tripping over the walking wounded with every step; and that even if you’re running a very respectable pace – say, nine-minute miles – you still have almost an hour left to run. And that’s a really, really long time when you’re tired. Add to all this that your depleted energy stores will also have had an impact on your brain, affecting your focus and your mood, and you have a recipe for the most miserable 10K of your life.
Hauling yourself over the psychological wall is almost harder than getting over the energy crash, because there’s no one solution guaranteed to work. Here are a few techniques to try:
Self talk: Remind yourself that you knew this race was going to be hard – that’s why you entered it – but that you’ve done the training and you can get through these last few miles. Think about all the hard work you’ve done to get to this point and tell yourself you can make it.
Mantras: Before the race, choose a short, memorable mantra to repeat through the last 10K of the marathon. It could be simple and serious: “I am strong”. Or some runners prefer to think of the rewards and chant, “pint of beer, pint of beer”, over and over. Just choose something that will work for you and write it on your hand or a wristband. If you’re running for a cause that’s personal to you, something that reminds you of this could do the trick.
Distraction techniques: Use music (in your head or through earphones, if allowed in your chosen race) to lift your mood and keep you going. Or try focusing on your breathing or the rhythm of your steps to take your mind off the distance left to run.
Arrange a cheer: Have some of your friends or family stand at a pre-arranged point towards the end of the route. Just bear in mind that if you ask them to stand at mile 23, for example, they won’t make it to the finish to see you cross the line; and, at a big race like London, there’s a chance you won’t spot them, which could make your emotional dark place pitch black. So research vantage points well, give them your best estimate of your arrival time, and make sure you’re looking out for them as well as having them look out for you.
Eat more sugar: In the last few miles of a marathon, extra fuel won’t do much physically to help you keep going but tasting something sweet can help your mindset and pull you out of a funk. Some runners carry an emergency treat, like a fun-size chocolate bar, for just such moments. (Tip: store this in an armband rather than a pocket, to reduce the likelihood of it turning to mush.)