Friday, 26 November 2010

Marathoning for beginners - part three

Something happens in a marathon which does not occur in other athletic events. It's a physiological event associated with running very long distances, and often stops or slows runners so significantly that lazy writers liken it to hitting a brick wall - personally I think it's more like having a wall thrown at you, whilst trying to cook a soufflé with a blindfold on. Underwater. Wearing clothes made of sadness.

This point often comes as much as 8 miles before the finish line, leaving the poor runner to endure an hour or more of perhaps the most wretched existence in sport. Just thinking about hitting the wall is making me feel nauseous and worried, slightly faint and nervous. Though right now I'm planning to do it again, and again, and again, which would suggest that there's something extraordinary and amazing about overcoming it. Here follow my thoughts.

‘Hitting the wall’ (the metaphor we'll stick with, for brevity if nothing else) occurs when your body has used up all its available glycogen, the primary fuel for muscles. Glycogen burns very quickly and efficiently, which makes it an ideal source of energy, and energy for running in particular. However, most people are only able to store enough glycogen to get them through 18-20 miles’ running, at which point the body switches to its auxiliary fuel supply: fat. Fat is much less efficient for fuelling muscles and this makes running (and thinking, among other things) much, much harder. What's more, strong runners don't tend to have much fat going spare...

Back to that point in the marathon. Despite your devout training and having diligently read part one and part two, every part of your body and mind is suffering. This is normal. As you approach the wall your feet, ankles, knees, legs, hips, and back are likely to be hurting, your arms may start to go numb and your neck may start to ache - this is ordinary discomfort caused by the impact of running for a long, long time. But once you hit the wall you realise that every atom of your being is throbbing with pain. Your eyelashes hurt. Your fingernails hurt. I distinctly remember laughing during the latter stages of the Brighton Marathon because my elbows hurt so much.  Why my elbows?  No idea.  After I hit the wall during the Paris Marathon I realised, with bemusement, that I couldn’t remember how to speak French.  Seeing as I’ve been bilingual all my life this was something of a surprise. I was exhausted. I was miserable. And there were still miles left to go.

Somewhere around mile 23-24, Brighton 2010. The thumbs-up is a lie.
As their bodies start to fall apart, marathon runners set themselves apart from normal people. A normal person’s self-preservation instincts kick in: they slow down, then stop, sit down, and probably call an ambulance.  A marathoner assesses the damage, sighs a tiny sigh, and ploughs on for another 7-8 miles, drawing on a deep, primal reserve of energy and self-belief.  As the final miles are slowly but surely covered through grinding pain and increasingly creative swearing, the end draws into view, and the sheer, unadulterated joy of having overcome the wall releases a hard-won surge of endorphins. The marathoner crosses the finish line, is handed a medal, and enters a different world.

This is how marathon runners are different to normal people. They’ve discovered how to keep going after they’ve done everything they possibly can but still find themselves significantly short of their goal. They’ve found an extra level of ability, a spare reserve of energy and drive which they didn’t know they had, and they are rewarded for finding it. 

This knowledge (I hope) never fades, and my perception is that marathoners retain a greater confidence in human ability than most.  They know that they are capable of going beyond the visible spectrum of possibility, of doing that little bit more than anyone might reasonably have expected. Whenever anyone asks me about running a marathon, I tell them they can do it – not because I think it’s easy, but because I know that everyone is capable of achieving the feat.

In short, life is just better ‘beyond the wall’ - it’s a 24/7 festival of optimism, self-confidence and faith in humanity, and there’s always pasta on the menu.  Come and join the party.

See you on the other side


P.S. Hello Guernsey and Denmark! 

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