Hitting The Wall. Those words strike fear in the hearts and minds of marathoners. In the marathon it is the point of almost no return, the point at which you question your will and ability to go on. Or so I’m told. Boston marathon winner (and Canadian marathon record holder) Jerome Drayton once said “To describe the agony of a marathon to someone who’s never run it is like trying to explain colour to someone who was born blind.” I don’t think I have ever hit the wall. I’m not sure how I will respond if I ever do. I hope that I have the resolve to tear it down brick by brick, in Run Fatboy Run style. To my endless amusement, race directors build symbolic walls at the 20-mile mark for marathoners to run through. I look upon those giant inflatable archways as life-sized placebos – if I can run through it I won’t hit it. Maybe the inflatable placebo works, maybe that’s why I’ve never hit the wall. Or maybe I have hit the wall and I don’t know it. Like Drayton said, some things can’t be explained. I’m going on faith that I’ll know it if it happens, but will I? What is it like? I get tired, my pace may ebb and flow, my legs feel heavy, running becomes more difficult as the miles go by … is that a bonk or is that a marathon?
Bonking. I’m not alone in my confusion. Scientists hotly debate what the wall is and why we hit it. Many point to physiological causes like muscle glycogen depletion, low blood sugar, dehydration and general fatigue, but plenty of studies have shown that the wall strikes before true depletion. Others argue that we hit the wall when our brain starts telling us that we can’t (or shouldn’t) go on, even though we have not hit our physiological limit. In truth bonking may not be one thing. There may be a body-bonk, a brain-bonk, and an ultimate-bonk when both the brain and the body put on the brakes. Although much ado has been made as to why we hit the wall and how to avoid hitting the wall, considerably less scientific attention has been given to the actual experience of bonking. What does the hitting the wall feel like? Perhaps the occurrence is so gruesome that marathoners won’t talk about it and therefore researchers can’t study it. Buman and colleagues set out to try. Their objective was to assess the frequency of hitting the wall among marathoners and to identify salient phenomenological characteristics of the experience. The runners who reported bonking were presented with a list (see below) of the 24 most commonly reported characteristics of hitting the wall and they indicated if the experience exceeded that of a typical race or training run, specified when the effect became significant, and rated the impact on overall performance.
The List. The 24 characteristics commonly reported as part of the experience of hitting the wall: generalized fatigue, loss of running form, renegotiating performance standards/race goals, muscle cramping or muscle pain, unintentionally slowing pace, difficulty breathing, loss of concentration, deliberate direction of attention away from race, increased motivation, increased effort, clearer focus on race objectives, confusion, decreased motivation, irritability, lightheadedness, decreased sense of pace, nausea, dehydration, limb heaviness, increasingly negative attitude, desire to walk, shifting focus to surviving race, intentionally slowing pace, and desire to quit. This does not sound good. Not good at all.
The Facts. Only 43% of respondents in Buman et al’s study reported hitting the wall. I say “only” 43% because many studies report a bonk rate of closer to 55%. I’m astonished that around half of all marathoners bonk – I guessed in the neighbourhood of 25%. The upside is that almost all go on to finish the race. Although more men reported wall hitting than did women (45% versus 37%, this gender pattern is consistent with other research), all who hit slammed into the wall around 19.72 miles. Finish times did not differ between those who did and did not hit the wall – so the faster are not more immune to bonking.
The Bonk, defined. From the list of 24 bonking characteristics, four things differentiated those who hit the wall from the non-bonkers: (i) generalized fatigue, (ii) unintentionally slowing of the pace, (iii) a desire to walk, and (iv) shifting focus to surviving the race. The remaining 20 characteristics were reported by both bonkers and non-bonkers alike, although bonkers may have experienced those characteristics more intensely or felt more impacted by them. So how do we save ourselves from this fate? The authors found that the odds of hitting the wall were about 1.82 times higher for males than for females. So Step 1: be a woman. They also found that a greater distance for the longest training run was associated with a reduction in the odds of hitting the wall. Step 2: Don’t forget the long run. I like a few of my long runs to be within 30-minutes duration of my expected marathon finish (for instance, if you expect to run a 3:30 marathon a few long runs in the 3-hour range may help you push back the wall). Expecting to hit the wall, surprise surprise, increased the odds of hitting the wall. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Step 3: Fill your well to boost your confidence. Hitting the wall in a previous marathon also upped the odds of doing so again. Step 4: See Step 3.
The Lesson. I think Yogi Berra said it best: “Baseball [running] is 90 percent mental; the other half is physical.” Poor math skills aside, I think this quote and this study reinforces what we already know about running a marathon: prepare your body, prepare your mind, then step on the starting line full of confidence.
Study Ref: Buman, M.P., Brewer, B.W., Cornelius, A.E., Van Raalte, J.L., & Petitpas, A.J. (2008). Hitting the wall in the marathon: Phenomenological characteristics and associations with expectancy, gender, and running history. Psuchology of Sport & Exercise, 9, 177-190.
Title Ref: Pink Floyd – Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1). From the album The Wall. 1979.