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Humpty Dumpty sign, seen at the 2016 Geneva Marathon
(2016 Geneva Marathon supporter, from Seen on the Course by Denise Sauriol)

What the mind believes, our running shoes will achieve!

Experts say that “hitting the wall” is when a runner depletes the glycogen stores in their muscles, which in turn leads to their legs slowing down dramatically. I agree with this, but I also think there is a mental component to hitting the wall that in most cases can overpower the physical wall. Having been around the marathon block for 28 years, I think that hitting the wall is when a runner’s race actually starts.

Hitting the wall is not exclusive to the marathon distance. It can happen in triathlons, half marathons and ultramarathons, too. It is the point in the race where the legs are no longer listening to the brain to make like Madagascar and “Move It Move It,” but instead the legs feel like concrete with each stride. That spring in our step we had in the start corral has sprung!

Our brain is the most powerful muscle we have. Even though it is not technically a muscle, it is muscle-like because it can be trained and conditioned. If we want something bad enough in running and in life, we will do whatever it takes to get it, right?!

Back in the day (circa early 2000s), I had a couple of friends who ran the Chicago Marathon after being bet that they couldn’t run and finish it. This bet of course originated after quite a few cocktails and was only three weeks out from the actual race. On race weekend, Greg and Ken signed up at the expo. They then toed the line on race morning and took off with the rest of the runners. It wasn’t pretty, but they did finish the race!

I share this story with my runners to highlight that sometimes the marathon is way more mental than physical. And also that there are two groups of marathoners: one group that gets most if not all of their training in and subsequently finishes their marathon, and the other group that barely trains, powers through race day on a whole lotta mental will, and painfully makes it to the finish line. Basically, they pull the marathon out of their gluteus maximus, so to speak!

I don’t recommend being a member of the latter group, as you are more likely to get injured and will hurt sooner in the race and longer post-race. But no matter which group you are a member of, you are still a 1 Percenter!

You may not even realize it, but throughout your training runs you are not just training your legs for the distance, you are actually conditioning your brain too for race day. This training occurs before the run even starts and also during the run if and when it gets so difficult that your brain is telling you to stop.

In both these scenarios, you come to a fork in the road so to speak, and you can take the easy route or the hard route. You can take a left and boycott the run altogether or you can remember your “why,” make a right, and get that run in even though it’s the last thing you want to do. You may also come to a fork in the road where taking a left will be the easy route that allows you to stop the discomfort, whereas taking a harder right means digging a little deeper to keep on keeping on.

On those days when you don’t want to run, remind yourself that the “go” or “no go” choice is conditioning for race day. Choose your turns strategically!

Whether you hit your wall in a training run or on race day, here are four tips to help you break through.

Denise’s 4 tips for breaking through The Wall

1. Remember, you have done hard things

Emphasis on plural! I don’t think many of us make it to adulthood without enduring difficulties and challenges.

Think of experiences you have been through when maybe someone told you that you couldn’t do something or experiences where you didn’t know if you were going to be successful, but you toed the line anyway. Every cell in your body knew you were going to make it!

When I left my 26-year career in accounting back in 2016, I was rightfully SCITED (SCared + excITED). I was scared but also so excited about what lay ahead. In making the decision to “de-corporate”, I thought about all the scary things I had done in my life and drew courage and strength from them. Those prior successes gave me just what I needed to jump into the unknown of coaching full time.

2. Gratitude Alphabet

Back in 2012, I was competing in the Vineman Ironman event. I was only 50 (out of 112) miles into the ride, and I was already hitting a mental wall! This was way too early to be mediating a fight between my legs and my mind.

Out of nowhere, for each letter of the alphabet I started naming people and experiences from my life that I am grateful for. If I got stuck on a letter, I started over. If I forgot someone or an experience, I started over. I also added a “why” component to my gratitude alphabet. Before I knew it 10 miles, 20 miles, 30 miles were going by so quickly.

I am not a neuroscientist, but I don’t think our brain can be in a state of “grrr” and a state of gratitude at the same time.

3. The “hard” is what makes the race shirt worth its weight in grit

During this month’s TCS New York City Marathon, I reminded myself when I hit my wall at mile 21 that I was earning my race shirt. I was also earning the new marathon sweatshirt that I bought at the expo. 🤣

To me, my race shirts mean more than any shirt I buy off the rack or online because there’s much more than just a financial transaction involved. Granted we pay a registration fee to participate in a race, but we also pay in lactic acid and sheer will on the race course!

To me, the personal value of a race shirt is proportional to how much struggle was endured on race day.

4. Be your best running mate

We are our toughest critics, myself included! What is ironic here is that most of us have an easier time building others up than building ourselves up.

When things get hard in your race or training run, visualize that you are running alongside me or your closest friend and that we are telling you, “We are so slow!” or “We want to quit!” or “We can’t do this!” Whatever you would tell us to help us keep going, I want you to rewind and then tell yourself. Essentially be your own best running friend!

Next time The Wall makes a guest appearance at your race or training run, call upon that “muscle” you trained that sits between your two ears! It’s a powerful weapon if you have it tuned to the right station!

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About Coach Denise

Coach Denise Marathon Whisperer profile picture Coach Denise, aka The Marathon Whisperer, has been coaching runners of all abilities and ages since 2010. She started coaching after surviving a near-fatal car accident and it’s now her favorite job, so much so that she retired from her 26-year accounting career to coach full time at Run For Change Coaching. Coaching is her way to give back what running has given to her since she first laced up her running shoes in the 4th grade.

Denise has guided runners from their first 5K all the way to 100-mile ultramarathons. To help runners complete their first marathon, she recently published the highly acclaimed “Me, You & 26.2 – Coach Denise’s Guide to Get YOU to YOUR First Marathon” (4.7/5 stars, 146 reviews on Amazon). She has been featured on ABC, NBC, BBC, Runner’s World, and Women’s Running, to name a few.

Her own running career spans more than 300 races across seven continents including 131 marathons, two IRONMAN triathlons, and two 100-mile ultramarathons. She has also twice completed the Abbott World Marathon Majors. Her goal in working with her clients is to help them run their first, fastest, or funnest race.

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