Two weeks ago I looked at my training calendar and the distance for Saturday’s long run–18 miles. Thus far in my training, I’ve had an attack mindset to these high mileage runs. ‘Bring it,’ has been my attitude on Saturday morning. Friday is my rest day and I get amped to see what I can do when Saturday morning comes around. Most Saturdays I’ve felt good physically and experienced good results from my long run workouts.
But when I laced my shoes on February 11th, I was feeling different. ‘How are you feeling about the run today?’ Emily asked as I started my leg swings to warmup. ‘I don’t have high expectations for this one. Today feels different.’ The whole week had been different, too. I was away from Knoxville for four days, which meant two training days in an unfamiliar place–which means training isn’t nearly as effective. Add several hours in the car the day before a long run, tack on windy conditions on Saturday morning, and there you have a formula for a difficult training run.
When 2 Miles Feels Like 20
In the first four miles I felt a difference and my watch confirmed what my legs already knew–I was struggling. I adjusted my mindset to disregard the time and simply complete the miles. I was confident I could do that. As long as I kept an easy pace, took nutrition (I love Gu gels now, especially tri-berry flavor), and stayed hydrated, I felt sure I could complete 18 miles. The week before I ran 16 miles and finished strong on the last two miles. What was two more miles?
I soon discovered pride goes before The Wall.
Around miles 10 and 14, I felt a wave of fatigue sweep over me and I wondered if I was touching The Wall. I stayed focused on my pace and nutrition and pressed through those waves of tiredness. After overcoming those two moments of fatigue, I thought I was in the clear. Between miles 14–16 I felt more confident, so confident that I turned into a subdivision known for its steep hills. I’m an idiot. I thought a second wind would carry me, but the The Wall wheezed with mocking laughter in the distance.
Then something shifted at mile 16 on the other side of those hilly miles. I looked at my watch and saw there were 2 miles to go. It felt like 20.
My Initiation to ‘The Wall’
I reached for a Gu Energy Gel, hoping for that shot of energy that has sustained me in so many other weak moments. It was like expecting a bottle of water could extinguish a campfire. My quads felt like two sacks of flour. I could see my feet moving, but that must have been muscle memory alone. I couldn’t believe I was still running. My knees had been coping with a dull ache and I had been monitoring that pain to make sure I didn’t injure myself.
Just as I was approaching mile 17, I began a gentle descent that felt anything but gentle. Downhills can be a relief when you’re tired, but not this time. Running downhill is a skill of energy conservation, a skill I’ve just begun to practice and learn. But I had no energy left and I thought the pain in my knees was changing from dull to sharp. When I reached the bottom of the hill, I slammed into The Wall. I bonked, as runners say. Almost immediately, the pain in my knees went away. My brain had magnified the pain amid the stress of hard running.
I was one mile from my driveway, one mile from completing 18 miles, the longest run in my life. But the remaining distance felt as far as Texas. I didn’t make it. I couldn’t press through The Wall this day.
One Defeat, Not Two
After I came home, refueled with carbs, and finished my stretching routine, I was able to think about what just happened. Right after I hit The Wall I expected the rest of the day I would be grumpy and discouraged. I was surprised that discouragement didn’t set in. I realized I had a decision to make. I suffered a physical defeat hitting The Wall, but it didn’t have to claim another victory by shaking my confidence. The calendar said February 11th, not April 2nd, the day of the Knoxville Marathon. I’d much rather experience The Wall for the first time on February 11th than April 2nd.
There’s no guarantee that I won’t bonk on April 2nd, too. I don’t know how the rest of my training will go, how my body will feel, and what the weather conditions will be like on April 2nd. But I have faced runners’ greatest fear two months before the starting gun goes off. I tied up my laces two days later for a recovery run, an easy 6 miles. Sure enough, I was able to keep my regular pace and I didn’t have any signs of injury.
I’m grateful I hit The Wall, strange as that sounds. Failure became an opportunity for learning.
Gideon, the Patron Saint of Marathon Running
In the days after bonking at mile 17, I learned more about energy conservation, nutrition, and pressing through The Wall. I reviewed my training calendar and saw that I had increased both my weekly mileage and my mile pace beyond my present fitness. The Wall was more a case of training errors than a sign of an injury or my ability as a runner. Weakness and fatigue are inevitable in marathon running. There’s no way around fatigue in a race of 26.2 miles. But learning how to prepare and respond to weakness, that’s the skill I’m learning in these weeks of training.
In the age of the Judges, Gideon leads Israel in battle and he reaches his physical limits during his pursuit of the kings of Midian. Gideon reaches that symbolic river, the Jordan River, which Joshua had crossed with Israel to enter the Promised Land. When Gideon reaches the Jordan River with 300 of his mighty men, their strength is spent. The Jordan River must have looked like The Wall. Judges 8.4 reads, ‘And Gideon came to the Jordan and crossed over, he and the 300 men who were with him, exhausted yet pursuing.’
Exhausted, yet pursuing. Gideon and his men are exhausted, but exhaustion does not mean the end. He must continue his pursuit. He must replenish his strength for the rest of the fight. Gideon seeks bread to replenish he and his men. In two places, they are denied food and help. Gideon does not cease his pursuit amidst this deprivation. Exhausted, they continue their pursuit. In the end, they defeat the kings of Midian and secure peace in Israel.
I think Gideon ought to be the patron saint for marathon runners, or for anyone who must endure a long fight when their strength is spent. It is a good thing to reach our limits, to discover our energy is not boundless. It teaches dependence upon God’s strength, which is the only way a tired sojourner completes his journey.
Of Redemption and Comebacks
Last week I looked at my training calendar and saw a 20 mile run on Saturday. Gone was my pride. I didn’t start out in attack mode, saying ‘bring it.’ I had some butterflies and doubts after last Saturday’s bonk, so I kept my expectations low. And then I looked at the weather–windy and raining. Instead of ‘bring it,’ I said, ‘whatever, time to go.’
When I reached mile 14, I laughed at how soaked I was, how strong the headwind was before me. My legs were tired and beginning to fade. I remembered Gideon, ‘exhausted, yet pursuing.’ And then between miles 14–16, I noticed a return of strength in my legs. My watch confirmed a lower split time. When I reached 17 miles, I didn’t realize it. I was feeling fatigued, but confident about the remaining 3 miles. It felt like an actual 3 miles, not like the distance from Tennessee to Texas.
When I turned the corner at mile 19, I was able to pick up the pace a bit and finished the final mile faster than the previous miles. I completed the longest run in my life without bonking. It was a satisfying comeback, a taste of personal redemption. But it wouldn’t have been as satisfying had I not hit The Wall and learned the lessons it had to teach me.