"Hitting the wall," to a runner, means reaching the point in the race when the body refuses to obey the mind.
While running my first marathon in St. George last fall, I never did find the wall, much less hit it.As I ran the 102nd Boston Marathon with about 12,000 others Monday, the wall became very real to me.
It was perfect running weather, cool and moist. Weather would be no excuse. We had driven the course the day before, so I felt comfortable with the terrain. Of greater importance to me, the unsettled feeling in my stomach gave me a perverse confidence that I was mentally prepared.
With four helicopters overhead, bands playing and a national TV audience looking on, we were escorted to the starting line in groups. At exactly noon, we were off. Looking later at the start on television, it seemed surreal.
My awe at being part of such a spectacle was soon tempered, however, by the physical challenge of running 26.2 miles.
I was amazed, as I ran, by the diversity of the group. During the three-plus hours which would follow, I would see all ages, shapes and sizes of men and women. Husbands and wives holding hands, identical twins running side by side, even a father pushing his baby in a carriage - all came to test themselves.
From the start, I ran easily, almost effortlessly. The early spring beauty of New England became intoxicating. I passed runner after runner with a growing confidence. My body was responding to every request.
The crowds made the physical pounding almost unnoticed. The towns of Ashland, Natick and others rolled by much like the drive of the previous day. The female student body of Wellesley College provided a real emotional lift with their loud and empassioned encouragement. Unlike the solitary surroundings of St. George, there were spectators everywhere.
My time for the first half was 1:33, certainly making my unannounced goal of breaking three hours within reach.
At the 17-mile mark, well before the dreaded "Heartbreak Hill," I felt it happen. As my pace began to slacken, my mind cooly instructed my body to pick up the pace. Nothing happened. The cold chill of being out of gas hit me. I had made the novice runner's worst error of not pacing myself properly.
As my stride began to falter, a runner at my shoulder said something like "from here to the end, it's all mental." "So this is what running a marathon is all about," I thought to myself.
Despite the slowing, I kept at it with a renewed determination. Despite the mistakes, I would triumph. At the 20-mile mark, another problem - a sudden pain in my right foot - made every stride painful. Long gone by now were the confident assurances of besting my time in St. George.
As folks I passed so easily before now began passing me, I closed my eyes and pictured the finish line. I must not allow my body to quit now. The miles continued to pass, but not nearly as quickly or effortlessly as before.
At the 25-mile mark, I heard my name from the crowd. It was my dad and sisters, who had come from Houston, to share this experience with me. I forced a smile and a wave, trying not to show my pain too much. It didn't work, they said later at the finish line.
I was determined not to walk across the finish line. The huge crowds helped as I forced myself those last few yards, but it was still the hardest thing I have ever done.
As I collected my thoughts at the end, I was pleased to have finished, even through it was not as good a time as St. George.
My training regime was not nearly as good as before, and it showed. Like life in general, if you don't prepare properly, it will show. Sure, school and my upcoming wedding played a role, but those are just excuses.
Will I be back? Sure. Was it worth the pain? Absolutely. I learned more about myself during those hours than I ever knew before. And despite the struggle, I liked what I saw.