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Trying to avoid the wall

February 23, 2010

A rather literal interpretation of the wall.

It is a well-established and well-known fact that long-distance runners hit something called ‘the wall’. Basically, you burn through around 100 calories for every mile you run (although this varies depending on speed, the body mass of the individual, level of effort, etc.). So, in order to run a marathon, your body needs access to something like 2600 calories. At around the 18 mile point, 1800 calories in, your body will probably run out of glycogen stores and start converting fat to energy, which takes more oxygen and takes longer, which means you slow down.

So far I’ve experienced this phenomenon on pretty much every training run over 20 miles. You go from maintaining a relatively steady pace to finding that your legs feel like a mix of concrete and jelly. Your pace drops and there’s pretty much nothing you can do about it. The prospect of running another six miles becomes a real challenge, in complete contrast to the first six miles of the run, which were inevitably a breeze.

On Sunday morning I was feeling a bit ropey. My throat was sore, I didn’t feel especially strong, and it seemed more than likely that I was trying to fight off my partner’s cold. Deciding that it was time to tackle the thorny issue of mid-run nutrition, I packed four cubes of marzipan to consume at six-mile intervals.

A couple of points to note here:

  1. There are a million specialist carb gel, isotonic drinks, etc., that are specifically designed to be consumed mid-run. I didn’t have any of these in the house. In fact, the only thing that seemed to fit the bill of providing a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates was marzipan.
  2. Again, if you’re packing specialist carb gels, you can Rambo yourself up with a reel of packs strapped to your arm for convenience. If you’re improvising with marzipan, each cube needs to be wrapped in cling film and stored somehow. Running attire isn’t renowned for its capacity to store items beyond the size of a key, so the cubes got tucked into my gloves.
  3. If you’re sensible, you’ll take water with you. I didn’t.

Six miles in, I tucked into my first cube of marzipan. Unpeeling the cling film while wearing gloves could have been easier. Still, at marathon pace I was able to eat relatively easily (i.e. I didn’t choke). I even picked up my pace, benefitting from the sugars (or placebo effect, depending on how quickly marzipan really can be absorbed into the blood stream). Great, I thought, perhaps I’ve really stumbled on something that will help me kick through the 20-mile barrier.

Twelve miles in and the sun had come out. In fact, it was starting to become considerably warmer than I had anticipated. It took me a mile to chew down the cube of marzipan as I trotted past the cooling towers of Didcot Power Station. It was more of an effort to chew down the remainder as my mouth got sticky and dehydrated. I mentally steeled myself for the hill to come, drawing parallels between the chunk of almond paste and Didcot’s coal-burning energy supply.

After eighteen miles I was beginning to feel overdressed in my double layered top and gloves. Eating marzipan started to become like chewing down on sweet sand. I was parched, struggling to maintain any kind of a pace as my body tried to maintain a healthy body temperature. Passing the sulfurous sewerage works as I returned to Abingdon I started to feel my stomach turning, but managed to keep everything down.

Lurching on, gasping for a drink with one cube of body-warmed marzipan in my left glove and three empty wrappers in my right glove, I decided to cut the run short. I was parched – quite literally. Two pints of water later, and I actually felt pretty good.

So, lessons learned from this experiment?

  1. Marzipan is not a good idea. Too dehydrating to eat, fiddly to unwrap and difficult to store. (Although, to give it credit where it’s due, it did keep me going energy wise.)
  2. Take water, stupid. It might not be warm, per se, but there’s no more frost on the ground and you lose a lot of fluid over 20 miles.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Nollie permalink
    February 23, 2010 9:12 pm

    I’ll need to figure out how to keep up my energy levels during VLM and I’m considering jelly babies or gels.

    • February 24, 2010 12:13 pm

      If you’re thinking about gels, it’s worth knowing that the Lucozade store seems to still be applying a 50% discount with the code RWFEB10 on first orders. The code was mailed out from Runner’s World, but was meant to expire on 21 February. As of today (24 February) it still seems to be working… Got to be a better option than marzipan!

  2. April 1, 2010 9:16 am

    LOL! I had a similar incident with POLOs. Nearly chocked to death. SportBeans are actually a pretty good solution. They don’t get as sticky as jelly beans and the slightly salty taste helps to digest them when your mouth is dry.

    P.S At least you didnt save the marzipan for race day!

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