I have often been asked by runners and non runners alike what it is like to hit the wall. The boogeyman of endurance sports, a place where your body succumbs to the sheer strain you are putting it through and your mind follows like a lamb to the slaughter. It can last for seconds, minutes or it can completely derail a race.
Before the New York Marathon I always said that I’d never hit the wall but at mile 19 I smashed awkwardly and excruciatingly against it. I hit it so hard that all that mental strength I believed was so deeply ingrained in my identity was effortlessly uprooted. I guzzled down a gel two miles early in an a vane attempt to kick start my body but it didn’t work. I threw it against a wall as my body came to a shuddering halt. I limped on and reached a porter-loo on the course and in that green, smelly and disturbingly warm container I did something I’ve never done before; I plead with myself.
In those moments in the most humble and unsettling of places I weaponised words. I thought back to all the times where people around me cast doubt upon my dream of becoming a runner when I was 20 stone and starting out. I said the names of those who tried to shackled me with their own limitations outloud. I wouldn’t class it as rage but the feeling that bubbled up from within was invigorating.
I emerged from my smelly motivation box saying loudly “get it done”, which probably confused the hell out of the person about to go in but with that I began to run again.
I wish I could say that I kept on running till the very ending finishing in glory and style but within a mile I came to a painful halt again. My body was simply running out of energy.
The final few miles were the hardest of my entire running life. I was completely spent, my energy levels were dangerously close to zero and I could feel my heart beating hard in my chest. After you come past mile 22 there is the cruellest part of the race, the torture of the endless straight to Central Park. There is a subtle incline that gets more and more pronounced the nearer you get the park and it silent saps your body of energy. My legs felt like tree trunks attempting to root themselves to fifth avenue and no matter how much water I was drinking I felt painfully dehydrated. For the final five miles I did some simple arithmetic, each mile should take me ten minutes. I had time in hand at this point, five minutes to be exact. But as each mile marker came and went that buffer was fading, and so was my hope. Just like the Moscow Marathon, where I finished 93 seconds short of this goal, I felt that I was about to come painfully close only to lose again.
Entering Central Park signalled that there was only two miles left, my shuffled music selected This is Me from the Greatest Showman soundtrack and I’m not embarrassed to say I mouthed the words as I tried to motivated myself forward. It’s a song that reminds me of all that I’ve come through, every dark day and sorrowful night, and that I am still here, still me.
As I passed the final mile marker, with only ten minutes left on the clock, I knew I needed something big. I had to dig deep and find whatever was left within.
I thought of every marathon finish line that I had fallen short: Rome, London, Chicago, Edinburgh, Berlin, Queenstown, Moscow, Snowdonia, Paris. I felt all those disappointments like an deep wound upon my skin but with it came a spark that reignited my weary body. I began to sprint with ragging purpose (which is when the photo above was taken!). With the narrowing corridor of cheering spectators and the sea of other runners I had to dart and weave my way through, sapping more energy and sending cramps radiating up my legs. I was going as hard as my body could go but suddenly and without warning I was walking again with my head down. I still needed something more and I knew exactly what; my partner who was 3,000 miles away. She’s been a constant at so many of my races, the sprint finish are usually fuelled by the excitement of seeing her out there cheering me on. I know that I wouldn’t be the runner I am without her support. So I thought of her there somewhere in the sea of supporters and with a final stuttering, surging sprint I crossed the line.
I instantly looked down at my watch: 4 hours and 28 minutes. Finally.
The emotion of it all hit me like a tidal wave and I instantly broke down into tears much to the confusion of the man finishing next to me who awkwardly moved away from the blubbering wreck of a man. As the medal was hung around my neck I felt my body breath a sigh of relief. 11 times I failed, 11 times I learned, 11 times I became more resolute.
I want to finish this trilogy of posts with something I said after completing my first marathon in April 2016: Never let anyone (or even yourself) tell you what you can or cannot do. You have no idea what you are truly capable of.