Case in point: Cowtown Marathon. This is a perfect example on almost every marathon or 50k I've ran. You start the race and feel great. You brush aside any of the nagging feelings in the legs or doubts you may have simply because you are running a steady race and you feel extremely strong. For me this was easily through the first 5 miles. I was running a little slow, but I couldn't help but imagine fireworks and hearts - uh, wrong daydream - at the finish as I come sprinting down the homestretch as though I hadn't ran at all. A smile would spread across my face at the thought of it.
That same smile would slowly slip away over miles 6-9 as the miles stretched on. Mind you, my pace was still the same at that point, but I could tell things were tightening up but I was so close to the halfway point.
For the first half, of course, that was my only motivation, to get to 13.1. There is something about that number, just the same as 26.2, that I absolutely love reaching. Because of that my pace remained the same as I trudged on towards the halfway point. Once there, of course, I know that I have less than half the course to go! Woohoo! A momentary surge of endorphins, or whatever it could be, that pushes me through to mile 14.
In the back of mind I would start wondering, "Will this race ever end? Man, I am going so slow, these miles just won't go by quicker." Ha. How do you go from "Yes, done with half" to "What the?" Right when I hit 14 my pace dropped a good 2 minutes, and remained that way for the rest of the race. Motivation seemed to drop. Every mile dragged on. Finally, mile 15. Is that 16? Oh, but a momentary respite as my mind weakly registered that I now have single digit miles to go. This is and of itself is enough to give me fuel. Knowing that at mile 16 I would have less than 10 miles to go. Yes!
Then mile 17 and 18 come by and it barely registered, continuing on, not caring at all at this point. Mind you, my pace was still consistent with my second half, but now all I wanted was to be done, to just stop and sit down. Eat something. At this point I always begin to wonder why I would ever decide to sign up for a marathon or 50k. I mean, what kind of sadomasochist am I to willingly put myself through this? Mile 18 usually comes as my lowest point in the marathon, and it certainly did at Cowtown. I am usually hating life as I struggle to maintain a steady zombie shuffle. After all, I am certainly not a lead gazelle. I am no Kenyan. I cannot run a marathon with ease. It is always a struggle for me, no matter how much training I've done. It happens, and I always struggle.
But then something begins to turn at around mile 19. It is that in between mile. The mile right after I had hit the wall. The mile that I am struggling through in order to overcome the wall. Just on the other side of it is mile 20 and the welcoming arms of a 10k. How can I not push forward, even as I drown in the lows of The Wall? No matter how hard I hit it, I know now, at least, that just one more mile would change everything.
And it did at Cowtown. I finished mile 19 and moved on to mile 20. As I hit the magic 2 0 that childish grin from the beginning of the race would invariably find its way across my face again. I know my legs are tired. I know that my calves hurt. I can tell my muscles feel like cramping and that I am starving and low on energy. But with a 10k to go how can I not enjoy myself? The end was finally in sight. With every passing mile they begin to fly by. Whereas miles 14-19 seemed to take forever, miles 20-26.2 just fly by. I move. I continue to move. And with every mile marker I now know that I am almost there.
It is always a magical experience. I actually enjoy the wall, after the fact, of course. It always puts me in my place and shows me that I am doing something very difficult. Invariably this always happens to me. After the halfway point I begin a war with myself, berating myself for trying to do something that is much grander, something that is much more powerful that I am capable of. That mental battle will mean the race, right there. Miles 14-19 are where your mental strength come into play. At every marathon I have ran I always struggle the most on mile 18. It has happened way too consistently to not be a fact for my body in all future marathons.
Is it worth the momentous struggle during those miles? Without a doubt it is. For the struggle is but momentary, maybe an hour to an hour and half, but the joy and the feeling of accomplishment at the finish line cannot be measured. I've now finished 8 marathons and 6 50ks and I can say without a doubt that I have felt these ups and downs at every single race, and at the finish line I am always smiling and am already impatient for the next one. Everyone's body is different of course. Maybe you don't run into these problems the same way I do when I come to the daunting wall and wonder, "How will I get around that?" Maybe your wall is at 20 or 22. But I would wager that there is a mental battle that begins as you lead up to that tough set of miles, cause you know what is ahead of you.
The wall is a bitch, but it is what makes the marathon so tough, and the reason why mental strength is needed just as much as physical strength.