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When marathon runners hit the wall

Runner Camille Baxter's, 55, second Chicago marathon in 2011 was easier for her because she knew what to expect.
Runner Camille Baxter, 55, knew what “hitting the wall” was when running her second Chicago marathon in 2011.

The next Bank of America Chicago Marathon is more than eight months away, but many runners have already started their training regiment. While physical preparation is important, runners also will be working on their mental strategy, many with fears of “hitting the wall.”

Camille Baxter was running along the Dan Ryan expressway, the loneliest and hardest part of the Chicago marathon for most runners, when she “hit the wall.”

It was mile 22, her body was hurting, she was tired and she had only one thing on her mind; talking herself into finishing.

Last year, 37,440 runners from 50 states and more than 100 countries accepted the Chicago marathon challenge.

Before a race, runners face many difficulties like keeping up with their pace during training, dealing with pre-running anxiety, overcoming boredom during long runs, etc.

However, “hitting the wall” is the issue most runners face during the race.

There comes a point between mile 20 and 22 where some runners hit the wall and negotiate with themselves. Athletes face an internal confrontation: should they quit or keep going?

Mental preparation for the last 6.2 miles determines who will cross the finish line in Grant Park.

“It’s your parasympathetic nervous system shutting down and saying stop because maybe something’s injured or you can’t go any further,” said Sara Buxton, sports psychology consultant and director of the Chicago Center for Behavioral Medicine and Sports Psychology. “Maybe not physically, but mentally you’ve given up.”

For Buxton, most runners will hit the wall but those with a high enough pain tolerance won’t.

Marathoner Jeff Nicholas explained runners hit the wall when their bodies run of glycogen and start burning calories from extreme places like muscle, forcing them to slow down.

“Everyone hits that point,” Nicholas, 40, said. “It’s just a matter of how to get through it.”

For seven-time marathon runner Cayce Hoak, 32, hitting the wall also can be caused by bad nutrition during the race; your body to run out of fuel.

Dave Walters has run marathons for 45 years but hasn’t hit the wall since his early days.

“I used to hit the wall at 20 miles and I couldn’t figure out how to get around it,” said Walters who has run 25 marathons. “But I did enough reading, talked to enough people to figure out that you just need to keep feeding yourself during the race, keep drinking and you can get around it.”

But knowing the concept and its causes isn’t enough to overcome the wall.

For Baxter, 55, mental preparation is a process that starts with physical training. Every time she completed a longer run, she demonstrated to herself that finishing the marathon was possible.

She said the first marathon is the hardest to prepare for mentally. Since most training programs focus on the first 20 miles, first-time runners have no idea what to expect of the remaining 6.2.

“You don’t really know before experiencing it,” Baxter said.” You’ve heard about hitting the wall, but you don’t know what it feels like.”

Walters, the coach and runner, believes trusting your physical training and having a positive attitude can guarantee you a good marathon, but honesty is also the key when preparing runners for hitting the wall.

Walters, 60, said he prepares his team by always telling them the amount of discomfort and pain they will experience during the last stage of the race.

Buxton, the sports psychology consultant, also prepares her clients for hitting the wall.

“Sometimes you prepare them for the wall, but sometimes you don’t want them to expect the wall because then they’re just waiting for it,” Buxton, 27, said. “Instead of even thinking about the wall, it’s thinking about planning out ahead of time what I’m going do to at this mile.”

To keep focused and push negative thoughts away, mental health counselor and sports psychology consultant Dustin Morici suggests setting three simple goals before the race and repeating them throughout the race.

“Since it’s a very long event you need to build good thinking habits,” Morici, 28, said. “Look at how you see yourself finishing and the people that have brought you to this point.”

The day of the marathon, Baxter used the faces of her friends and family to keep her going throughout the route.

But what can runners do if none of these tips have worked and they have just hit the wall?

“I would always suggest to grab somebody else,” Buxton said. “Talk to somebody else because your mind, when you’ve hit a wall, is going to have a hard time adjusting or finding anything to continue on unless you’ve prepared really well for it.”

Sports psychologist Kristina Pecora encourages her clients to visualize themselves hitting the wall and to develop a mental game plan that could go from singing all the Disney songs that you know, thinking about all the words that start with the letter “A”, breaking the race into miles, or trying to catch up with other runners.

“Preparing for the wall is acknowledging that you’re going to hit it, acknowledging that there’s going to be change in your mental or physical performance,” Pecora, 37, said.

Buxton said the day of the marathon it’s important to pay attention to where your mind is going and to defer any negative thoughts.

“A lot of it is a mental game, starting with what’s the dialogue in my head and how can I start to help myself versus hurts myself,” Buxton said. “If you’re taking care of your brain, you’re taking care of your whole body because your brain runs everything.”

Pecora said runners should give their mental game the respect it deserves and make it an integral part of their training.

“At the end of the day, it’s you and the trail,” said Nicholas, the marathon runner. “Regardless of how much training you did or you didn’t do or how well you diet or didn’t diet, it’s still you and 26 miles ahead of you.”

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