Last Saturday was my longest run so far; about 12 miles. Not even a half marathon and I was knackered, although I was pushing quite hard. The snow made it interesting and I came close to breaking my ankles about three times. At about mile 10 my body started to feel quite heavy and I could only really manage a slow jog, just above walking pace (about 8 kmph for those who use a treadmill often). Annoyingly, at mile 9 I was feeling fantastic and was bounding along like Neil Armstrong so why the sudden lull?
Stupidly, I was so keen to get the long run out of the way on Saturday morning that I didn’t eat or drink enough. I had 2 slices of toast, a glass of water and a dash of insulin. In retrospect this was hardly enough to last the best part of 2 hours but I guess there’s no substitute for experience so next time I’ll kick-off a little better prepared. But it did get me thinking about the body’s energy supply and the dreaded ‘wall’ I keep hearing about.
For those that are not aware, the wall is best described as a virtual barrier the body struggles to get through once it has depleted its energy supplies. During a marathon race, usually at around the 20-mile mark, the liver and muscles run out of the much-needed glycogen supplies that provide energy to the legs and arms. Once this happens the body will switch to another energy source, fat. Unfortunately, burning fat for energy is far less efficient and the body grinds to a halt. Symptoms? Exhaustion, weakness, dizziness and even hallucinations. Check out this poor bloke who hits the wall in the final 200m of the London Marathon. I don’t like the look of that at all; the body not even having enough energy to walk like a normal person.
Annoyingly, most marathon training plans won’t actually set you off on a full 26-mile practice run before the big day. In fact, almost all of them cap off the maximum distance at around 20 miles before tapering off a couple of weeks before race day. So we’ll never actually experience the wall until we’re being watched by half-a-million people, at which point you’ll probably just want to curl up into a ball and die!
So how do you prepare for the wall? Think P.C.D. (no, not the Pussycat Dolls. But hey, whatever works for you).
Keeping to a steady pace during a run can be very difficult. The top athletes have pacers who tag-team around the marathon course keeping the athletes bunched together so they don’t travel too fast and burn out at the end. There may even be pacers within the masses that you can run with (Runner’s World offer free pace groups). Alternatively, wear a bench-mark bracelet that you can pick up on the day that will give you your correct split-times that you’ll need to stick to.
Many marathoners (marathoni?) will over-load on carbs during the two days up until the race and decrease their training regime to allow the body to store the glycogen levels for the big day. Also, consuming carbohydrates during the race is a must. Most sports drinks will suffice but some also like to experiment with sports gels at around the 15-mile mark and pre-empt hitting the wall.
If you do ‘bonk’ (another cracking term for wall hitting) then you’re not going to get through it without a little will power. Having your friends and family there at mile 20, cheering you on will give you a huge boost so make sure you round up your friends and get them to shout inspiring abuse at you at strategic points around the course.
Apparently, experiencing the wall is similar to the effects of hypoglycemia due to the low blood-sugar levels. I’m diabetic and have had my fair share of hypos. They’re not pretty and I’m understandably nervous but I’m sure with some experimentation I’ll be OK. If any of you have any suggestions, tips or previous experience then I’d love to hear from you. Although I have had a lot of practice at hitting real walls (I live with my girlfriend), I’m in new territory here.