Hitting the Wall

My first 18-mile training run was supposed to be a 19-miler, but my legs quit at the end like angry minimum-wage employees (suddenly, and with an outburst of cussing and threats). Afterwards, sprawled out on the couch and covered in ice packs, I googled “Marathon Wall” and discovered an entire genre of depressing YouTube videos that feature racers collapsing within feet of the finish line. There are seriously dozens of them, and they’re all the same: svelte, athletic-looking person is charging on ahead, grinning broadly and waving like royalty at the crowd. Then, suddenly, said person goes gray in the face and topples over.

Earlier this month, I heard the news about Micah True, the famed long-distance runner who was found dead in New Mexico four days after leaving for a run. Then I made the mistake of googling “marathon runner dies,” scrolled through dozens of unique news stories, and decided that it was officially time to panic.

From what I’ve heard and read, marathon runners are likely to “hit the wall” or bonk if they burn through their carbohydrate reserves or if they attempt to run faster than their physical limits. So basically, all you have to do to avoid bonking is enjoy a solid pre-race pasta dinner, take hourly doses of energy gels on marathon day, and run at a reasonable pace. Check, check, check. These all seem like no-brainers, right? But then why do so many runners fail before reaching the finish line?

I thought about this for a long time, and then I remembered my general attitude on the day of the 18-mile debacle. I’d been dreading the run, I pushed myself a little too hard in the beginning, and about halfway through, for some reason, I began to count my steps. Last weekend, I went out for a 20-mile run and I focused all of my attention on staying uplifted and motivated. And guess what? It worked! I finished and felt great.

Here are a few of the things that popped into my brain during that run:

• A stack of chocolate chip pancakes drizzled in maple syrup and smothered in whipped cream with poached eggs on top.
• The Elvis burger: Peanut butter, banana, and a pound of delicious ground meat encased in fluffy white bread.
• Ryan Gosling in short shorts handing me a tray of red velvet cupcakes.
• The self-congratulatory post-workout shopping spree for cute racerback t-shirts, followed by a giant ice cream cone and a stick of butter.
• Butter and peanut butter mixed together…

Okay, okay. I think you get the picture here. I’m starting to get nauseous and I think you are too, so I’ll stop. But believe me, when you’ve been running for over two hours and all you’ve had to eat is something called “Chocolate Outrage” that comes in an airtight space-age packet, this kind of visualization works. Feel free to incorporate these ideas into your own workouts, and don’t forget to thank me as you leap over that wall.

Mari Zagarins

When Mari isn't running, biking, hiking, or jumping-jacking in and around her home in Montpelier, she is practicing her facial expressions in the mirror and contemplating whether she should learn to swim.