I was excited when Sheila suggested this series of racing horror stories, and I instantly remembered watching a Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon race on TV many years ago when Paula Newby-Fraser (I think!) had hit the wall in the last kilometer. As painful as it was to watch, it was equally funny, and I cringed while giggling and covering my eyes as Newby-Fraser crawled on her hands and knees across the finish line. I seem to remember two other racers actually ending up sprinting each other on all fours to the line! I don't know why it was funny; I actually was in awe of their sheer will power to continue racing in the face of total loss of muscle strength and coordination. It is an image that I will always remember.
I am surprised; now that I sit down to write about my own experience of 'hitting the wall' that the details of the actual bonk are not so vivid (nor comical!). I do remember that it was at the 2004 National Capital half marathon. Race day was in late May, so most of my preparation was done in the cooler months of Spring. Although the temperature was a balmy 20°C, and under most circumstances it was quite bearable, it seemed to me to be a bit HOT. Other than that, there was really nothing to complain of. It was clear and sunny, and not too humid.
I started the race slowly, as one only can with the thousands of other people also trying to get their race under way. I had my water bottle belt on, with my trusty sport drink sloshing around, to make sure that I stayed hydrated. I even met up with a few of my running mates in the confusion of the first couple of kilometers; things were off to a great start!
The race was pretty uneventful for the first 15km. The course was pretty flat and because other runners moving at about the same speed constantly surrounded me, it almost felt as if I wasn't even moving. I even started to daydream a little about all the yummy food that I could eat when I was done. Maybe that was the warning sign. I was getting hungry. I remember starting to crane my neck too, to see if I could glimpse the next kilometer sign. Oh! There it is kilometer 17! Only 4 km to go, no problem!
It was probably at around this point that my brain disconnected from reality as everything started taking a REALLY long time. For instance, I swear it was longer than 1 km between the 17km and 18 km signs. In fact it felt like 5 km. And also, I remember lots of people were now going by me, not running with me. Then, right out of nowhere, my left quad muscle seized. Since my brain was working at a slow pace, it took a moment to figure out that maybe a stretch would be a good idea. I pulled over onto the side of the road and stretched and massaged my clenched leg.
With about 3k to go, it seemed obvious that I would keep going, but my body disagreed, and when I started back up again (hobbling now), my right quad cramped. Oh No! Now what? I figure it was out of sympathy that the right leg went as well. Either that or it was protesting the fact that it would have to lug me to the finish line all on it's own. Whatever the reason, I managed to latch on to another struggling runner (not literally, although I did consider it!) and the rest is a blur. In a daze, I plodded right behind him stared at his bum for about 25 minutes (for 3k!) and then we were allowed to stop, we had arrived.
The madness of the finish area didn't even snap me out of my daze. Four or five people ambushed me, undoing the timing chip from my leg, wrapping and emergency blanket around me, putting a finishers medallion around my neck and commanding me to keep moving to the exit at the back. These few minutes felt like a muted T.V. scene in fast-forward and me in slow-mo. Not long after that I found my parents. It was then that I realized that I could walk no longer and the reality of my cramped body flashed back into consciousness. Mum said: "Leesh, Hi! How did it go?" and I, so happy to see her, said, " I barely made it!" But I did make it…PHE-ewf.
Surprisingly (although I think this is fairly typical for lots of athletes), it only took me a few weeks to totally forget the pain and to start obliviously contemplating running the full marathon next year!