When I ran the marathon back in 2005, I didn’t remember finishing, really. I remember stepping on the timing mat, then nothing for a while before and after that. It’s called “hitting the wall,” and I was lucky that it happened to me right when I finished and with plenty of people to help me. What follows is a ten-minute video of Paula Newby-Fraser hitting her wall during the 1995 Ironman in Hawaii. Watch it, and, if you’re a runner/athlete, try not to cry.
My wall came at me like a Mack truck because I wasn’t very well prepared, and I had no idea what to expect of a marathon. I had my cell phone with me, and I had been posting audio messages to my blog. (Unfortunately, those audio posts are now lost.) If you were to listen to them, you could hear me get more and more incoherent as the miles went by. At mile 20, I had a ten minute conversation with my mom. She told me to push on, and I did. But I completely ran out of energy at the end. And it was “just a marathon.”
The Iron Man is a triathlon. It’s a 2-mile swim, 112-mile bike race, and then a 26.2-mile marathon. If you’re not someone who usually practices a sport, think about that for a second. Think of the demands on a body that kind of punishment presents. And then look back on that video and see what Paula went through. It’s a miracle any of them finish, in my opinion.
A couple of things happen when you push your body to those limits. First, you run out of carbohydrates for energy. These are stored in your muscles and liver. Even if you try to replenish them, your digestive system shuts down when there is stress, so you’re not replacing as fast as you’re spending those carbohydrates. This is why many runners try to carbo-load the night before a race. Then, after the carbohydrates are depleted, you switch over to burning fat. That’s not a big deal for a guy like me. I can stand to burn a little fat. But sustained fat-burning over many hours poses other risks because of the byproducts of that metabolism. Further, as you can see from the video, elite athletes are not packing pounds of fat, so they run out of that fuel as well. This is where the body switches to burning “everything else.”
Our brain, being the wonderful thing that it is, won’t allow you to burn “everything else.” It will begin to send signals to your body to stop whatever it is that you’re doing and seek carbohydrates and fats immediately. This is most likely what happened to Paula. She was out of fuel and her brain sent the panic signal for her to stop. That’s why she was so incoherent. There was nothing else in her mind but to stop, I’m sure.
Knowing all this, I probably would not have let her continue, stuck an IV in her arm, and loaded her on an ambulance to a hospital. It’s too risky to allow someone with the symptoms that she displayed continue. Another byproduct of burning “everything else” is the breakdown of muscle. That breakdown releases potassium into the blood stream, and too much (or too little) potassium messes with the heart’s ability to beat. Talk about a deadly situation.
But Paula had a moment to gather herself and get up and get going and finish. For that, we must applaud her spirit, but shake our heads at the people around her who decided that a deliriously exhausted athlete should be allowed to continue. It was dangerous to do so. Again, it’s my opinion.
As the summer truly sets in here in the Northern Hemisphere, we need to be mindful of the messages our body sends us while we’re out in about in the heat. Most of us are not elite athletes. Yes, many of us have enough fuel to get us through. But things like dehydration are also dangerous. Too little water during a very hot day is very dangerous for people of any age, but particularly for children and seniors. Too much water with nothing else puts you at risk of hyponatremia, something I also suffered at the end of the marathon. So try to consume light snacks along with drinking water. Those electrolytes need replaced along with the water you’re sweating.
Finally, if you feel disoriented or see someone who is disoriented and says something like “I feel I’m going to die,” don’t be a hero or let them be heroes. Call the emergency medical services. The only marathon worth finishing is life, at the comfortable age of 117, give or take.
Postscript: I’d also hit the wall at mile 10 during the Miami Beach Half Marathon last November. But that’s a story for a different post.
One more thing, a tear-jerker:
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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