A new runner’s experience breaking through the wall.
At some point in every endurance race the only weapon you have left to push through the fatigue or the pain is your mind. (Sports writers and athletes say that all the time, but you don’t get it until you get it.) That point for me came during my first half-marathon at Mile 11—the most painful, difficult mile of my life.
Until now I was Competitor magazine’s dirty little secret: a running magazine editor who didn’t run. Everything changed in June 2011 with a bit of cajoling from a columnist, Susan Lacke, who writes our monthly “Out There” column. She challenged me to start running and to test myself with a goal of finishing a race. My target race would be the inaugural Tinker Bell Half Marathon in Disneyland on Jan. 29. The Run Disney franchise has nailed making its half marathons approachable, unintimidating and just plain fun. I knew that it was the perfect race for my first half-marathon experience. The finisher’s medal was definitely a draw, too.
The race was early: a 5:45 a.m. start, which I appreciated because the air was crisp. I stood in my corral waiting for the fireworks show to send runners hurling toward the start line, and I realized I wasn’t nervous. The costumes, the music, the announcers had all created a party-like atmosphere that distracted me. I was also lucky to have my mom running with me, as well as my good friend Susan. Running with friends or family is important for a first-timer, as the encouragement and camaraderie can get you through the tough moments of a race. It’s also just more fun to run with partners. I know this because I did all my training solo.
I started training last July and it was hard for the first few weeks as my body adapted to running. I alternated walking and running, gradually increasing my mileage every week for six months. I won’t hide the fact that my training was unorthodox and admittedly a bit sporadic because I didn’t follow a training plan nor did I have a coach. I simply ran by feel. I slowed when I tired; I sped up when I felt good and completed longer and longer distances. I focused on my technique, stride and posture. I didn’t get too wrapped up in the technicalities of pacing, heart rates or splits. I only wanted to build my base to become a regular runner and comfortably finish 13.1 miles.
Standing at that start line I was confident I would finish.
I felt great through the first several miles as the mob jogged through the narrow cartoon-like streets of Disneyland and through the back allies of the park where all the magic you don’t see happens. Costumed workers lined the race route cheering us on, and runners stopped frequently for photos with their favorite Disney characters.
Maybe I was taking the thing too seriously but I never stopped; not for a photo op with Jack Sparrow, not for a bathroom break, not even to shed my layers as the air warmed up. I was really focused and driven to finish in less than three hours.
It was important to pace myself early on to reserve energy for the last several miles, so I walked through every water station even if I didn’t drink. My stomach felt a little funky going through Mile 7 so I ate this tiny little Luna Bar that came in my goodie bag. Oh. My. Gosh. It was the best thing I’d ever eaten, and my tummy did great the rest of the race.
In my training, my longest run had been 10 miles, so by Mile 8 I expected some fatigue to set in soon.
And boy did it ever. About Mile 9 my lower legs felt fatigued, and my running companions had gone ahead of me. Despite the crowd of runners constantly circling me, I suddenly felt quite lonely. I didn’t have anyone to pace me and even though I looked around at all the other ladies who were starting to fatigue like me, I still felt a lonely. My legs became heavy. It was then I understood the mental aspect of endurance running—I would have to dig deep within myself to reach the finish line.
Then came Mile 11. My toes threatened to cramp so I wiggled them before each foot hit the ground again. My hips tightened. My shoulders tensed, and I suddenly became aware of my jaw and teeth, which seemed to throb a bit. I had become hyper-aware of each and every body part, those parts that hurt as well as those parts that didn’t.
I don’t remember hearing noise from fellow runners, from cheering bystanders or traffic passing by. I shrank into my head, slowed to a walk, and tried to imagine a pain worse than what I was feeling during this mile. I couldn’t think of one. Childbirth was less painful. No Seriously—to occupy my mind I kept thinking, “What pain have I ever felt that rivaled this?” I thought about that time I got in a car wreck. Nope. Then about the time I fell down the stairs. That hurt pretty good, but nope. The first time I ran seven miles straight! Getting closer. Then in the ultimate moment of drama and self-pity I said to myself, “Childbirth hurt worse. Right? Yeah, for sure it was worse than this. No, nevermind. This damn Mile 11 is totally worse.”
So, I guess I need to work on the positive self-talk.
Now just past the 12-mile marker, I was drawing from sheer determination totally hitting “the wall” until one small act of kindness and camaraderie blessed me: A woman, older than me, sweaty, red and more power-walking than running, turned to me and said, “We’re on the home stretch, girl, we can do it.”
So that was it. She helped me break through the wall and she doesn’t even know it. (Thank you, lady!) I picked up the pace and ran my heart out all the way to that sparkly gold medal. I cried when it was all said and done, the mental and physical exhaustion just took over, especially when I saw my mom. (Love you, Mom!)
I finished in 3:14. My goal was 2:45. That Mile 11 really stuck it to me.
People continue to ask me if I’ll run a half-marathon again. Probably, but right now I’m just reveling in my accomplishment and taking some time to get back into training. I’d like to toe the line at some 5Ks and 10Ks. So, if readers have any suggestions on what my next race should be, e-mail me at email@example.com or find me on Twitter at @SomyrPerry.