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Marathon runners tackle 'the wall'

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
| Saturday, May 4, 2002

As Tammy Slusser made her way to the 20th mile of the Barbados Marathon in 1999, she was so dehydrated that she wanted to rip the water bottles away from the spectators lined along the course.

Luckily, she scoured the ground and found a discarded ice bag. She picked it up and stuffed some cubes in her mouth.

Slusser had met — "The Wall."

The wall can be known to marathoners as the end of their dreams for personal bests or it can cost an elite runner a possible championship.

It will be a major obstacle for the thousands of runners in Sunday's 18th annual UPMC Health System/City of Pittsburgh Marathon.

Almost all runners will meet the wall. Most will run through it.

It's not an unbreakable object, but it can be harmful if runners don't make adjustments to overcome it.

Making it through the wall
1. Runners should be well-trained. A runner can't decide a week before to run a marathon.

2. Stay within times that you can handle. Don't go out too fast.

3. Keep hydrated. Take water at every water station or drink the fluid you have trained with i.e. PowerAde or some other sports drink.

4. Pay attention to temperature and adjust times accordingly.

5. Stop and walk, if necessary.

6. Do not eat anything prior to the race on race day.

7. Sports gels are good to eat for an instant source of energy if you have had them before.

8. After the race, continue drinking, and eat something within 15 minutes of finishing.

9. Do not wear new shoes or shoes that have more than 500 miles on them.

"My legs felt like lead, and I was so thirsty, I didn't think I could go any farther," said Slusser, a Monroeville resident who has run 60 marathons and is one of the elite runners in tomorrow's race. "I was a little disoriented and could have quit, but I fought through it. You are so out of it, you just have to take it one mile at a time."

In medical terms, the wall is when the human body has reached its limits because of a loss of glycogen. Glycogen is a solid form of glucose stored in the liver. The body converts glycogen into sugar for energy.

Runners can hit the wall anywhere during the 26.2-mile race, but it usually occurs between Miles 16 and 25. First-time marathoners or those who have run 100 marathon races can experience some form of the wall.

"Yes, you can get hurt from hitting the wall, which can result in severe injury," said Dr. Abe Friedman, a critical care cardiologist at UPMC Shadyside and clinical instructor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. "The thing is, runners train for so long and, when marathon day comes, they want so badly to finish. It is OK to give in to the wall. There will be other marathons."

There are many factors that contribute to runners breaking down.

Extreme temperatures — too hot or too cold — affect the wall as does how well a person trains for this grueling run. How an individual feels that day also has something to do with it.

Accuweather, located in State College, is forecasting temperatures to reach 76 degrees in Pittsburgh tomorrow under mostly sunny skies. That could cause runners to hit the wall earlier. The heat makes it difficult for the body to defeat its enemy.

Baldwin track coach Rich Wright knows about hitting the wall in extreme heat. Having run 23 marathons, he recalled running Pittsburgh in 89-degree heat in 1986 when he hit the wall the hardest. He was pulled off the course at the Mile 19 medical station. He was given two bags of IV fluids and then ran the rest of the race.

"At Mile 18, everything started shutting down," said Wright, the finish-line coordinator for tomorrow's race. "I couldn't function. I had no energy left in me when they pulled me off at the medical station. But after I got the IVs, I had so much energy that I ran even faster the last seven miles."

The wall is a combination of mental and physical breakdown. It also is as unique to an individual as a fingerprint.

For elite runner Pete Julian, who will run tomorrow, the effect of the wall was feeling like each leg weighed 150 pounds.

"You feel like you can't take another step," Julian said. "There is no denying when you hit the wall. Your body simply runs out of fuel. You aren't really in pain. You just struggle to put one foot in front of the other."

Friedman compared it to running in quicksand.

"It also is like trying to run through the Steelers defensive line when you have no equipment on," Friedman said. "Going through the wall is exhausting, mentally and physically. There is usually pain and discomfort and disorientation."

Friedman, who is a marathon runner, said that giving in to the wall is not a bad thing, but runners need to realize quitting one race is just that.

Don't tell that to Slusser's husband, Don. He has run, and finished, 87 marathons.

"I refuse to quit," Slusser said. "I will do whatever it takes to finish."

Even if that means vomiting most of the way.

He completed a marathon in Turkey with dysentery, an infection that causes severe diarrhea. He started getting sick at Mile 6 and was ill the entire way. He lost a lot of weight and became disoriented, but managed to finish.

Mark Hunkele of Wilkins Township said that one way to combat the wall is to do a 23- or 24-mile training run prior to the marathon. Most people do 20-mile runs to prepare, but if a person does a longer run, he or she will know his or her body will make it that far.

Stephen A. Russo, director of sports psychology for UPMC Center for Sports Medicine said the wall is mental and physical. He said runners know when they've hit it because they will feel like they are running on empty. He suggests mixing walking and running to not wear down the body as fast.

Jim Crist of Hampton Township has dropped out of a marathon, as has Rick Sinopoli of Churchill but neither attributes that to the wall. Crist's came to Pittsburgh two years ago, where temperatures climbed into the high 80s. Heat also was the reason Sinopoli did not finish one of his marathons.

"Most runners will walk or even crawl to the finish," Sinopoli said. "I have known runners to spend time in an ambulance and then get back out and complete the race. At that point, you don't care how you get to the finish line. You just get it in your mind that you are going to finish and no wall is going to keep you from crossing the finish line."

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