Scaling the “Wall” of Marathon and Mind

The idea of walking a marathon sounded a lot better back in January than it did on May 22 at mile 23. That's about the point where my trek across America's Rock and Roll City — Cleveland — hit the notorious “wall” known to marathoners.

I had heard about the “wall.” It's the point in the 26.2-mile race when your brain no longer produces endorphins but instead generates only the hormones responsible for hostility and hunger. The “wall” is the emotional barrier to finishing the event with a positive attitude.

It's the mental hurdle between the pleasant, upbeat you who registered for the marathon in a fit of optimism and the you who wants to spit on the next person who yells “great job” from the side of the road.

When I hit the “wall,” my wheels fell off. My tank emptied. My dogs started barking. If there's a cliché to describe physical exhaustion and emotional depletion, I thought it, felt it, and lived it.

Worse, I complained about it. I wish I could say I conquered Cleveland with stoic resolve, but the truth is, after 20 miles, I whined.

No doubt, at about the time I hit the “wall,” my lifelong girlfriend, Mary Pat, had second thoughts about having persuaded me to share this experience with her. She's the ultimate “can do” woman, the kind of person who knows no challenge too daunting but instead believes she can do anything she sets her mind on achieving. Not to mention, this was her eighth marathon. She actually thinks this is fun.

“Oh, quit bellyaching,” she finally said around mile 24. “Don't think about how much we've already done. Think about the fact that you have only two miles to go.”

There was that endless supply of energy and enthusiasm.

“In two miles I'll be dead,” I groused. I spent the next block wondering how she had roped me into walking across highway overpasses and through city parks for more than five consecutive hours. Somewhere in the back of my head, I heard my mother ask, “If Mary Pat asked you to jump off a bridge, would you do that, too?” Flashbacks of high school — probably another symptom of the “wall.”

I entered the Cleveland Marathon along with 1,594 others who somehow managed to cross the finish line. We all covered the same course from Lakewood to Case Western Reserve University and back to downtown Cleveland.

We all saw the same spectacular views of Lake Erie and inhaled the scent of morning coffee drifting from quaint neighborhood cafes. We grabbed cups of water from race volunteers and waved to strangers lining the roadways encouraging and applauding our efforts.

Yet for each participant, the views and smells and sounds of Cleveland created a backdrop for a unique marathon experience — a personal triumph over the ticking of a stopwatch reflecting months or even years of physical, emotional, and mental preparation.

Well ahead of us on the course were 12 men and two women whose marathons began at the accelerated starting gun that sent them spinning onto the course in specially designed racing wheelchairs. Most had their legs tucked neatly beneath them in their rigs. A few had no legs to tuck. Yet their sculpted torsos and muscular arms propelled them down the open road with extraordinary athleticism.

Somewhere between mile 18 and mile 20, a woman race-walker passed us at a clip I could only dream of maintaining. In the few minutes until she overtook us and moved on, we learned she hailed from the town of Medina, she recently lost 60 pounds, and she started distance-walking to complete the Avon two-day walk for breast cancer, the dread disease that is killing her friend back home.

At mile 22, we passed a woman whose gait listed uncomfortably off to one side. Her steady jogging pace slowed as we watched the gap close between us. When we walked alongside her, she said her posture wasn't caused by scoliosis, as we speculated, but by a stroke she suffered last year. In our fleeting encounter, we discovered this was her second marathon in a month.

“I seem to list to the left after about 18 miles,” she said matter-of-factly.

Oddly enough, when someone says they completed a marathon, we're likely to ask, “How did you do?” as though the outcome gives the race its meaning. But along the streets of Cleveland I learned the real question is “Why did you do it?”

I thought I knew why I took on the grueling prospect of a marathon. When I started the training program, I sought fitness after 40. I wanted an excuse to get out of my van and into my sneakers. Plus, it's virtually impossible to get together with Mary Pat unless I'm willing to work out.

It turns out my marathon trained me as much as I trained for it.

At the end of the day, the marathon had become a metaphor for marriage and money, for raising children and building a career and creating a home. It stood for time that passes too quickly and for hours that drag on in anxiety; for accepting my limitations and living gratefully for countless blessings of health and good fortune; for the moments when life's struggles seem insurmountable except for the prodding and praise of a good friend to help restore the patience or desire to keep going.

As for “the wall,” I learned you can't get around it. In every marathon there's a moment when you think you'll simply stop and quit the race. But you can scale it — figuratively, anyway — and when you do, you find you're at the finish line, where every step was worth the effort.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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