Sun 1 Nov 2015
Have you ever heard of the wall? It’s a common phrase among marathoners. It’s that elusive barrier when your body shuts down and no longer performs—except at a sputter, and only with great effort and agonizing pain. If you’re a woman and you’ve had a baby, it’s almost as bad as labor, but without drugs. If you haven’t had a baby, think about a time you’ve pushed hard at something—maybe a critical work project with a deadline closing in, and you pushed yourself to the point where your brain turned to mush.
I’ve started and completed 17 marathons to date. That’s a distance of 26.2 miles—each. Why would I do that? Well, that’s a question I’ve asked myself several times, but I do have a reason. I had a dream and I wanted the dream so badly that it became an obsession. The problem with an obsession is that you develop tunnel vision. My dream you ask? I wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon, the most prestigious marathon in the world. Rule of thumb—only 10% of runners can qualify. How I developed this dream was based on a one-time incident. Almost a fluke. I ran my first marathon, the Wichita Marathon, in 1983 at 30 years old in 4 hours and 20 minutes. Ten years later, I ran my second marathon, the Long Beach Marathon, in 3:55. Huge improvement! It just so happened that I finished that marathon only five minutes over the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon—five little, measly minutes. Also amazing, I hit the dreaded wall in that marathon for the first time. At mile 25 I had slowed to a crawl and each time my foot hit the ground, I felt like someone was stabbing me over and over. But with one mile to go and gut determination, I crawled across the finish line. Then I discovered that I had broken 4 hours in the marathon—quite a milestone. Funny, the pain then became a distant memory.
Needless to say, I saw visions of Olympic stardom. That was only my second marathon and I had performed brilliantly despite hitting the wall. Qualifying for the Boston Marathon was within my grasp. I had to try again. Did I think about why I hit the wall and how I could avoid it in the future? No. I just remembered that I needed to run fast and keep running fast. If I just tried harder, I’d be able to hold on a little longer and finish faster.
What can I say. That strategy didn’t work. The next marathon I ran, the Maui Marathon, was a total disaster. That time I hit the wall much earlier, like at 13 miles. Talk about a tough marathon to finish, but finish I did. It took me 4 hours and 41 minutes. Well over the 3:50 I needed to qualify for Boston. But that fast Long Beach finish haunted me and I knew I could do it again and faster. I blamed my dismal performance on the heat and decided to try again.
Then came marathon number four, the New York City Marathon. That marathon was to be my shinning redemption. The marathon, however, was huge at 32,000 runners, and we arrived so late that we found ourselves way in the back of the pack of runners. I didn’t even reach full stride until about mile 18. No, I didn’t run 3:50. I crossed the finish line at 4:34. That marathon, however, still stands as one of my favorite marathons. Harlem, the formidable Queensborough Bridge and the great finish through Central Park to the thundering cheering of the crowds is burned into my memory—even if it wasn’t to a 3:50 time like I had dreamed.
What’s important here is that I didn’t hit the wall. In fact, I finished strong and had a ball. No, it didn’t register at the time. Slower consistent pace equals stronger finish. Instead the strong finish encouraged me that I could qualify for Boston using the same strategy I had used before.
Then I ran marathon number five, the Napa Valley Marathon, and marathon number six, the St. George Marathon. Technically, I didn’t hit the wall at Napa Valley. I didn’t train for it and ran it slow coming in at 5:05. Technically, I did hit the wall at St. George at mile 20 and came in at 4:15. Do you see a pattern here? Finally, I got it. I needed a different strategy. Clearly I was doing something wrong.
It’s interesting as I reflect back on my marathon history. I see parallels between training and running a marathon and planning and living life. Here’s what I finally learned—my life lessons from hitting the wall.
- The marathon is a strategic race.
As in life, you think you’re on a path and then everything changes. The marathon is a long distance and anything can happen. There are many variables that can affect your performance, like weather, what you ate the night before, a hilly course, your state of mind, etc. Running a hilly course takes a different strategy than running a flat course. And, no, it’s highly unlikely you can finish faster on a hilly course. So rule number one is: Do not pick a hilly course if you are trying to qualify for Boston. Seems simple doesn’t it?
- Be coachable and learn from a professional.
Re-inventing the wheel is time consuming. The best way to shorten your path to greatness is to learn from a professional who’s been successful at what you are trying to do. As far as running goes (and life), there are many different training plans and philosophies to follow. Choose a coach that resonates with you and be coachable. It’s hard to take criticism but how else will you learn?
- Follow a training plan and don’t wavier.
Because the marathon is so long, it’s best to be at a base of 30 miles per week BEFORE you start a training program. My training plan is a six-month plan that gradually increases mileage. The plan allows the body to get strong and builds endurance. Following the plan not only strengthens the body, but also the mind. I’ve seen runners blow off part of their training plan and guess what? They struggle on race day. Don’t skimp on your long-term plan to accomplish something you want. It’s the foundation to not hit the dreaded wall.
- The marathon is not a sprint.
This was my hardest lesson to learn. At the beginning of a race or project, you feel great and feel like you can go forever. It’s easy to get caught up in the group energy and go out too fast. Then you’re running someone else’s race not yours. Then the early miles turn into the middle miles and then the grinding end miles lay before you. Sure you can gut through at 10K (6.2 miles) and even a half-marathon (13.1 miles) but not a marathon. The body gets totally depleted. It’s all about the pacing. The best way to avoid the wall is to start the race at a controlled, comfortable pace. Yes, it’s hard to do but well worth it at the end.
- Relax and let go.
This was the most important lesson I learned. Are you the type of person who jumps out of bed ready to control whatever gets in your way? Yeah, that’s me—or used to be. I thought I could qualify for Boston through sheer, gut determination. But it didn’t work. It wasn’t until I relaxed and let go that my dream came true. The first time I finally qualified for Boston (after 10 marathons), was after I had let go of my obsession and let it be okay that my dream would not come true—that I wasn’t a good enough runner. The next marathon I ran, the Kansas City Marathon, I ran for the joy of running. Not for some obsessive goal. I got out of my head and felt the joy of running. That simple transition changed my life. I not only qualified, I did it at the age of 54 and qualified with a time of 3:55:46—not only beating 4 hours for the second time in my life, but beating my Boston qualifying time by over nine minutes. I’m living proof that dreams do come true.
Think about it. Doesn’t training for and running a marathon parallel any big long-term challenge in your life? Like changing careers, starting a business, or hiking to the top of Mount Whitney. It takes strategy, a long-term plan, coaching, pacing, and passion.
Now it’s your turn. Tell me about a barrier you’ve broken by letting go. Comment on my blog. Want more articles on staying youthful and productive as you age? Subscribe to my blog or like my Facebook fan page. Looking for a speaker? Check out my website.
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