Despite putting in nearly 1,000 miles in training, marathoners often speak of a wall they hit at some point during the race, normally between Miles 18 and 22.
Some runners say it is due to a mental struggle, while others might say that it is purely physical, that their bodies just give out. Regardless, the wall is something that new marathoners fear and veteran marathoners have experienced at least once.
Ken Larscheid, 33, owner of Running Lab in Brighton, has run four marathons and hit the wall during his races. Every time.
“It depends on what your training was like, how hard you hit the wall,” Larscheid said. “When my training was really good, I still hit the wall, but I didn’t walk, I just slowed down my pace to a lot slower than I had expected to run.”
He explained that the common cause behind the infamous wall is the lack of glycogen in the body, which is why runners often take glucose tablets.
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“The body only has glycogen storage for roughly 18-20 miles — that’s why you hit the wall,” he said. “You have used up all the glycogen storage, so your body can’t process certain things effectively anymore.”
When people training for marathons come into his store, he tries to remind them that the race doesn’t really start until Mile 18 or 20. That is when the mental strength comes into play. And when runners encounter that wall, Larscheid gives them tried and true, old-school advice — take it mile by mile.
Taking it mile by mile is how Jeffrey Grzywinski of Monroe finished the Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank Marathon last year. Marathon training did not fit in his life last year, as he was finishing nursing school, but running the race was something he really wanted to do. So he did.
Grzywinski, 24, is the boys cross-country coach at Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central High. He tells his runners that in order to set a personal record and succeed, they need to get out for their comfort zones. He applied that thinking to the marathon.
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“I had done so many half marathons before, the first 13 felt like nothing. I came past my parents and gave them a thumbs-up. My dad joined me and ran with me for a minute,” Grzywinski said. “Then all of a sudden, like 2 miles later, when I was outside that comfort zone, that’s when that wall hit and literally everything started to break down.”
Before the race, he had never run more than 14 miles, and now at Mile 15, he had 11 more to go. His body began to give up, and he thought about what his friends who had completed marathons did to get through.
Grzywinski had a friend who ran cross-country for Spring Arbor University, and when his friend ran his first marathon he made a bracelet with 26 colors. Every mile he would look at that bracelet. Each color represented someone who affected him in his life, and each mile he’d spend thinking about that person.
“I didn’t have a fancy bracelet or anything like him, but I tried to do the same thing,” he said. “Every few miles when I was feeling it, especially at the end, I started thinking of my old high school coach, old high school teammates, my college teammates, some of my family, my really close friends, people that meant the most to me, to kind of give me a reminder on why I was doing this.”
Grzywinski finished his first marathon, showing how being mentally strong can help a runner persevere even when the physical training is lacking.
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As a physical therapist at ATI Brighton, Emily Concienne understands the importance of being physically and mentally prepared for a marathon. She has run the Detroit marathon before, this year being her third time attempting the full marathon.
So Concienne, 29, is no stranger to the notorious wall, saying she has felt it during at least four of her six previous marathons.
“When you hit that wall, your legs just feel like they are done. So you just try to talk yourself through it, and talk to other runners, run past people, say good job, they say it back and that gives you a little motivation,” she said. “But really, just mentally, you have to tell yourself, ‘I trained for this, I can do this.’ ”
In her opinion, training is crucial and a great time to practice overcoming mental obstacles. The 18- and 20-mile training runs allow runners to prepare for race day.
When Concienne tires during her long runs she tells herself, “If I don’t complete this run, then I am never going to finish race day.”
Even if she has to slow down or walk a little bit, as long as she gets the miles in, Concienne knows she will finish on race day.
First-time marathoner Maddie Krakowiak, an engineering student at Michigan, has heard about the mental wall and is preparing for it. She has a Spotify playlist set up for the big day — “Pump up music” — and is well stocked with GU energy packets.
During one of her long runs, she had the opportunity to experience and overcome some mental roadblocks. While running a hilly 18 miles in Pittsburgh, Krakowiak, 20, tripped and fell, landing hard on the ground.
“I laid there for a minute and thought, ‘I still have 5 miles to go.’ But it’s all right, I got up and finished it,” she said. “It was mentally challenging, but I’m glad I did it because I’m sure that I’ll hit that wall during the marathon and I’ll know not to quit.”
Beating the wall
Tips to overcome the wall:
■ Make a new music playlist
■ Write inspirational quotes on your arm
■ Remind yourself that you have trained for the marathon
■ Talk to other runners
■ Take it mile by mile or aid
station by aid station
■ Make a bracelet or necklace with meaning
■ Run with a friend
■ Practice running through mental struggles during training
■ Use proper nutrition
■ Slow your pace
■ Focus on the finish
■ Remind yourself why you are running
Watch for Kayla
Kayla Daugherty, 24, will be running the U.S. half marathon for the Free Press and making stops to interview runners and supporters along the way. Want to talk to Kayla? She'll be asking runners to tell us why they run. And we want to hear from you! Tweet or post your inspiration — be it text, photo or video — using the official hashtags, #WhyIRun and #FreepMarathon. Watch for Kayla on Sunday and watch for her Facebook Live videos on the main Free Press Facebook account and later on freep.com.