Hitting the Wall - John Glynn

Hitting the Wall (and why it hurts) - John Glynn

Hitting “The Wall” (known to many as “bonking”) soundslike an aggressive, painful, almost sadistic activity, doesn’t it?While you are not literally hitting a wall, there is a definite feeling of agony – one that is often accompanied by feelingsof frailty, faintness, blurred vision, and other distressing ailments. Usually arriving around the 23rd mile of a marathon,this nightmarish feeling is thought to correspond with depletion in glycogen levels (the fuel that propels us through a trying run).I am not just talking about cramping, or a build up of lactic acid; I am talking about a physical form of treason by our body. Here, undeniably, we see a total disintegration of our entire system: our bodies, brains and souls deceive us, leaving us feeling utterly disillusioned and deficient.

For many athletes,two types of crashes are extremely familiar: the muscle glycogen collapse and the blood glucose collapse. The former relates to the brain functioning strongly but the legs turning to jelly, while the latter relates to the legs moving nicely and the brain turning to mush. An athletic crash is a wretched marriage of dehydration, training inaccuracies, gastric issues,and dietary negligence. If you have run long distances, there is a high chance that you and the dreaded bonk have met at one point. You still wake up in a cold sweat, thinking of that time you were moving in a confident manner, but then, out of the blue, with five miles to go, your feet deserted you in a manner so callous that only Shakespeare could describe.

Benn Berkeley, an athlete from Chapel Hill, Lewes, England, competed in the first ever multi-discipline race across Siberia’s Lake Baikal, and is better qualified than most to discuss the dreaded Wall. When asked to describe his approach to the physical and mental barrier, Berkeley said: “For me, ‘TheWall’ is the first step to reaching where I want to be. I have become fascinated with the ‘third man factor’, and would like to understand it on a personal level. The only way I can do that is by experiencing it, and the only way to experience it is to go somewhere – mentally and physically – that I have never been before. So in a way, I look forward to it in order to push harder than ever before and try and find the ‘thirdman’. So, I guess it’s curiosity that gets me through TheWall...but a very strong sense of curiosity!”

The ability to manage pain is something we all have. Most people don’t ever put themselves into a situation to invoke this ability, but when they do, it brings a sense of achievement.

Our bodies have two primary sources of energy: glycogen(carbs) and fat. Just beneath the skin, fat is stored in adipose tissue, while glycogen is stored in our liver and muscles.Storing about 500 grams of glycogen, roughly 2,000 calories,an average athlete can raise this level by superior training and amassing a more muscular frame. On the other hand,fat reserves are much larger, and even slender athletes can store more in excess of 50,000 calories within their fat tissue.However, as we all know, running doesn’t just favor glycogen over fat; it demands it. When glycogen reserves are less than 10 percent our bodies can quickly enter a phase of malfunction.

While not every runner has hit the proverbial Wall, each of us certainly knows what it feels like to reach a point where the thought of lying down and waving the white flag seems quite appealing. After experiencing a dreaded crash, an individual begins questioning the legitimacy of carbo-loading, while endurance athletes question the supposed intelligence associated with a high-protein diet. While babies cry and women weep, we demand answers. Fundamentally, the science behind crashing is a combination of the physical and psychological...areas that we will now examine.

One of the components of “bonking” involves a reduction inchemical energy, fuel stored in the form of adenosine triphosphate(ATP). The biological gasoline is acquired from the breakdown (metabolism) of energy-laden foods. For the majority of athletes, their principal fuel sources come in the form of carbohydrates. Blood glucose and glycogen are widely regarded as the most powerful methods of energizing endurance-based exercise. Also, if we are low on carbs, then fats, such as fatty acids in the bloodstream and muscle triglycerides, can assist in fuelling us during events that require immense levels of stamina.

Fats are the most concentrated type of dietary ‘oomph’ available, and even the gauntest of runners possess enoughbody fat to get them through hundreds of kilometers.However, we require readily available fuel, and fatty acid breakdown takes quite some time – something runners do not usually have. An abundance of

circulating oxygen is required...an elusive commodity when one is competing in endurance-based events. At this point, unquestionably, carbs prove to be king. The metabolism of carbs requires far less oxygen.

Take a marathon,for example: if you begin by running at arealistic pace, a pace that suits you, your consumption of fuel will be about 77percent carbohydrates and 23 percent fattyacids. The farther you run, the faster your carb supplies evaporate; and that quotient changes rapidly as your body begins to look toward fatty acids for urgent assistance.Essentially, when precious glycogen levels are depleted, waste and fatigue toxins accumulate muscles much faster than theycan be eliminated, and a body’s operation systems breakdown, both mentally and physically. A major factor is that many ‘in vogue’ marathon training regimens state that thelongest run should be 20 miles – something that leaves thelast 6.2 miles as unexplored terrain. So, with that being said, extending your longest run to 26 miles (or more) could verywell help you avoid encountering or hitting The Wall.

How about Wayne Botha, one of world’s greatest barefoot runners imaginable...how does he cope with grueling, endurance-based events? The Takapuna Harrier ran his first ultramarathon almost two decades ago, quickly following it up with the Comrades 89km ultra marathon (a race very close tomany South African hearts). Having won a bronze medal with the New Zealand team at the 2011 Commonwealth 24-Hour Championships in Wales, Botha covered more than 220km and earned a fifth-place individual finish. Botha says: “I know how powerful the mind can be and what a huge influence it can have on the outcome of a race. We often experience extreme highs and lows, and the body sometimes just wants to shut down. The only thing that can drag us out of these deep troughs is our mind. The motivation and support of others is also vital to help flip the switch; but at the end of the day, the only finger on the switch is that of the runner.

”Obviously possessing a deeply personal relationship with running, Botha continued: “The ability to manage pain is something we all have. Most people don’t ever put themselves into a situation to invoke this ability, but when they do, it brings a sense of achievement.“I find it fascinating how running can clear one’s mind. Some say it is the endorphins that give us the ‘runner’s high.’ I experience this constantly. It may be due to sucking in large amounts oxygen or just being at peace with nature. I don’t know, but I enjoy whatever it is. Be it in a race or just training for an event, my mind seems to slow down a bit. The mundane noise of life seems to become silent. Even though I am totally awake and aware everything happening around me, I am able to start thinking on another wavelength. I become in tune with my body. All thoughts seem to be intensified and focused. My senses seem to be heightened.”As Botha asserts, psychological obstacles will always confront us, but having the mental capacity to overcome them can improve our physical ability in every sense imaginable.

Paul Romero, an imposing athlete and a talented mountaineer,states: “It is without doubt or debate within the power of the human mind to push through barriers that can completely defy logic. Time and time again, the human spirit has brought tissue and a heartbeat through the lowest valleys of which a human body can endure, when every fiber is worn thin and not a cell in the body should have the energy to live.”

As we push ourselves to the limit...there will come a stage where victory or defeat pivots not on the physical, but exclusively on the psychological

Four years ago, along with Karen Lundgren and his son Jordan, Romero made it to the top of Mt. Everest. Remarkably,the then-thirteen-year-old Jordan became the youngest person in history to successfully reach the epic summit .Having effectively conquered the legendary Seven Summits, Paul races on Team SOLE – one of the most prominent adventureracing teams in the world. Who better to give advice than the aforementioned men?Captivatingly, recent US-based research has shown that fatigue can be conquered, and seems to resemble a sensation rather than a physical occurrence.

In the past, undoubtedly,this hypothesis was contentious, scrutinized by people who actively felt and experienced exhaustion. Nevertheless,a study involving carbohydrate mouthwash delivered interesting results. Instead of being given a ‘conventional’carbohydrate drink during high-intensity exercise, researchers found that a person’s performance dramatically improved after using the carbohydrate mouthwash. Why? Researchers concluded that carbohydrates are identified in oral cavities by mysterious receptors, thus making one assume that the brain has the ultimate say in limiting and promoting our functioning.

The supremacy of the brain has been even more evident in the last three years, where we have witnessed a huge improvement in marathon times, with a number of athletes significantly bettering the 2011 world record time of 2:03:59. Many sports psychologists agree that one reason for this development directly relates to a ‘self-confident, no-fear’ approach that was initially displayed by some unique runners of yesteryears. Samuel Wanjiru, the great Kenyan, is perhaps the best example of a man who displayed this very attitude. Despite the hot and humid conditions of Beijing, Wanjiru led the famous marathon from beginning to end – a feat that went against the common philosophy held by distance runners. As we push ourselves to the limit, as we test our own personal boundaries, there will come a stage where victory or defeat pivots not on the physical, but exclusively on the psychological.

Yes, the physical exertion needed to run in excess of 20 miles is great; but it is cerebral obstinacy that can pull us through the most testing of times. If you can recognize that a segment of your race will be solely hinged on a mental setting, one plagued by thoughts of failure, pains and loss, then certainly, you can prevail. Although you may be overwhelmed by feelings of misery, these feelings are a brief thunderstorm; they will pass – and you will succeed.


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