There is a phenomenon in endurance sports called “hitting the wall.”
When one “hits the wall” during running, all sorts of interesting things can happen; knees can get wobbly, pace slows way down, the runner’s path may veer on and off the course, and the mind may exhibit symptoms of confusion, disorientation, panic and anxiety, hopelessness or despair.
Hitting the wall is a physical and emotional response to a physiological process that has to do with fueling one’s body.
Harold Pino, senior exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Sports Performance Center, said that “hitting the wall” is generally thought to be the point when the body runs out of easy carbohydrates to process and will simply stop functioning properly.This doesn’t mean your heart will give out but that you’ll feel extreme fatigue, disorientation and weakness.”It’s when your body runs out of sugars to use as energy. It’s a feeling of severe weakness and severe fatigue.”
In my late forties and up to my mid fifties, I ran a lot of endurance races.
I ran marathons and half marathons, participated in duathlons and triathlons and did a couple of long distance charity bike rides from Boston to Provincetown, one time, and all over (up and down mountains) in New Hampshire, on another time. Being somewhat of an “information hound,” I also read every book that I could get my hands on about endurance performance and diet, training programs, physiology, mental preparation for endurance sports, and “how to conquer the wall.”
I’m not sure, to be honest, what possessed me to pursue such grueling physical challenges on a regular basis, but I think it had something to do with also having entered seminary with three small children at home, pursuing a profession that was challenging for women, proving to myself that I had inner strength that I had not yet tapped, playing into my love of doing things to the extreme, and feeding my innate sense of competitiveness. I had missed the boat in my youth; chubby and not sports-inclined as a kid, I spent most of my childhood on the sidelines, literally, of many sports events. When I got to college, I got my nose stuck in the books with a pack of Marlboros at my side which didn’t necessarily lead to becoming a sports star.
At the starting line of my first marathon, I remember being petrified of what would happen to me when I “hit the wall.” I knew what to expect, I knew, approximately, when it would happen (sometime after Mile 18) and I knew that it would pass. But still, I was terrified.
Like clockwork, just after mile 18, it hit. Shorter than I had imagined, it took me only about 20 seconds to pass through”the wall,” but I remember my knees becoming like jelly, and a wild, electrified sense of alert and panic inside my head, like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was worse than the time that, by mistake, I grabbed onto an electric fence. The panic was worse than the physical symptoms of shakiness and fatigue, and, just as soon as it had come on, my body made the switch from burning glycogen to fat, and I was off and running again. In subsequent races, I also hit the wall, and it was just as alarming, but ultimately, not defeating.
Yesterday, I hit the wall.
Not physically, (my guess is that my glycogen stores are just fine), but the wall of time and flexibility in my work. Maybe you have hit the wall before so you know about this. In a week that was already very carefully orchestrated with myriad meetings, two non-consecutive nights in hotels up north, writing assignments, work for the wider church and a commitment to maintaining healthy self-care practices that require time to sleep and time to prepare nutritious food, well, I felt the squeeze. I hit the wall. There were not enough reasonable hours in the day to respond to all that was demanded of me, and so the time came out of the wee hours in the morning and, by Thursday night (last night) I bonked. I arrived home at around 10 pm, went to bed, and slept until I woke up this morning (hence, this late blog post).
Years ago, I read a fabulous book called Margin, Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Resources to Overloaded Lives by Richard Swenson, MD. (Navpress, 2004) Swenson’s thesis is that we need to build margin into our lives to allow for the unexpected events that demand more of us and that, when we do not budget for them, can drive us to “the wall.” But more importantly, Swenson prescribes a greater margin in our lives to address the low grade anxiety that comes with a too-full schedule that has little room for error. His “prescription” is this: the Symptom is Pain, the Diagnosis is Overload, the Prescription is Margin and the Prognosis is Health. Chapters in Swenson’s book talk about building margins into the areas of emotional and physical energy, adding margins of time in schedules and creating “cushions” in our financial lives, all in an effort to live healthier lives in the moments when life demands more of us, and in the days preceding the call, when just living a life too fully packed creates a draining sense of low-grade anxiety. The “prognosis” section of the book talks about how a life with more gracious margins can lead to greater contentment, simplicity, balance, rest, improved relationships and better overall health.
Now, I’m not whining. Really. My job- like many of yours- is very full. It is full of wonderful, exciting moments, fulfilling encounters with people all over our diocese, and a rich relationship with the One who has made us. My guess is that some of you may also lead lives that feel very full and that have little margin built into them, to manage the unexpected. My guess is that some of you may have hit the wall on occasion. Hitting the wall is actually a healthy way of showing us that what we are doing is not sustainable for ever, and that a shift in how we approach a task maybe required to make it across the finish line. Adding margin in our lives, up front, may help us to avoid the wall as we plan, more generously, for unexpected demands in our full lives. There are ways that runners can avoid hitting the wall: completing a training plan that conditions the body before race day, avoiding big speed surges in running by keeping a steady pace during the race, and adding a steady stream of nutrition in the body along the way on race day. Some of this is the runner’s equivalent to adding margin in one’s days.
I’ve made it through, and am grateful for the healing 10 hours in my bed last night.
It’s a busy world. Build some margin into it, my friends. Go and, like Mary Oliver, lie in the grass and pay attention, idle and blessed.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away,
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what i have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything dit at last, and too soon?
All me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver (1992)