The Hardest Part: Running When Everyone Else is Walking

Saturday’s 18 miler reminded me of something I had forgotten, something that, for me, is the hardest part of running a marathon.  Worse than bad weather, worse than being sick, and worse than the blister from hell, is trying to keep running when everyone else is walking.  Saturday’s long run reminded me of how much I continue to struggle with this huge mental obstacle.

Our route took us onto the race course of a new half marathon in town.  We ran four separate segments, three of which put us right in the middle of the back of the pack walkers.  Other than confusing some of the police officers when we veered on and off the course, no one took much notice of us.

There was one segment, however, where I was very much aware of the walkers.

There is a hill around mile 14 of our route that always gets my attention.  On this particular day I was feeling pretty tired by the time I got to the hill, and was dismayed to see that it was part of the race course–and everyone was walking up the hill.  My goal on that hill is always to not stop, to keep going if it kills me, and I knew it would be tough to block out all the people walking if I was going to make it to the top.

And I did.  I put my head down, didn’t look at anyone, and kept going all the way up and beyond to our next water stop.  I have to say, though, it was incredibly hard to dig that deep and make it happen.  And the strange thing was, I wasn’t worried about that hill at all until I saw all the people walking.  There was something about seeing everyone walking that made my brain go into panic mode and doubt that I could make it to the top without walking myself.  Running up that hill on Saturday was definitely the hardest part of those 18 miles.

My first two marathons were both extremely windy, warm, and humid.  There were lots of walkers, especially the last six miles.  I did better in the first marathon than the second one, mainly because I didn’t know any better.  The second marathon was only four months after the first, and I hadn’t had enough time to forget how tough it was.  When the second marathon rolled around with even worse weather conditions than the first, my heart wasn’t in it.  I wasn’t ready for a repeat performance in battling the elements.

Because of the strong headwind and 45 mph wind gusts the entire second half of the race, by mile 21 almost everyone was walking.  A strong headwind takes so much out of you, and it was all everyone could do just to push against the wind and make it to the finish line.  Michael waited around mile 23 to run me to the finish line, and kept telling me that my pace was still good, trying to convince me I had enough energy and strength left to keep running, but I couldn’t swim against the tide of walkers.

I’ve always known that the mental side of running those last six miles is what I most need to work on, and ignoring the walkers is a part of that.  The same thing happened to me in Death Valley.  When I’m tired, and see others walking around me, my legs instantly feel 50 lbs heavier and my brain becomes a whining mess.

The only thing that seems to work is to keep my head down, ignore everyone around me, and just keep going.

Stats: 18 miles @ 9:35 pace

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4 comments

  1. NumberzRunner

    First, a big congrats on pushing through and finishing your long run. Just a couple weeks left to Tulsa, right?

    Second, I can totally sympathize with you. When I ran decades ago as a kid, almost all of my races were 10k’s, so I never saw anybody walking. When I hit the last third of my first marathon in St. Louis back in the spring, I was shocked at the mental punch it gave me to see so many people walking (or worse, weaving back and forth and stumbling). It was disturbing, and I succumbed to the mental pressure to walk myself. I even wanted to stop and help some of them–but I wasn’t in much shape myself to do any helping…

  2. skippingstones

    I’m proud of you and I can’t imagine walking the whole thing, much less running it.

    I was thinking about wanting to walk when you see others walking. I would think that would be a huge temptation for anyone. And I’m wondering if, when you see them walking, the brain registers that as a kind of permission for you to also walk. It could be something that goes back to when you were first starting to run, maybe pushing yourself, and then you see others doing less and you thought that it was okay to cut back a bit. Which was true and probably the right thing to do in the beginning. But then that pattern of thought is laid down, without you ever realizing it. So now, that’s the way your brain assesses that situation every time. Of course, that’s just one possible explanation for why that is such a strong urge in you – kind of an automatic thing that your brain and body does.

    Or, it could just be that you already ran 14 miles, are incredibly tired, have so much farther to go, and you have every right to desire a little bit of a break – even if you don’t want to stop. 🙂 As I was reading, Dora from Finding Nemo was singing in my head: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming, just keep swimming…”

    • Run Nature

      I think it’s probably a combination of both. Sometimes it’s hard to swim against the tide, so to speak, and the brain starts telling you, “they’re walking–why aren’t you, dummy?” Other times it tells you, “ha, look at all those people walking, YOU don’t need to do that!” In other words, my brain is very fickle. Mostly, it was a matter of being really tired and walking up that hill looked so appealing. My hill mantra is kind of like Dora’s too: “Just keep going, just keep going, just keep going . . .” all the way to the top!

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