The Wall

Might as well continue with the Pink Floyd theme from the last post.

When I look back over this blog I see that there is a representative sampling of exactly the kind of posts that you might expect from such a blog.  There is Triumph over Adversity.  There are Obstacles Overcome.  There is no shortage of Humorous Incident and a healthy dose of Self-Deprecating Reflection.

However, I wanted this blog to be a faithful record of my year-long journey toward–hopefully–becoming an Ironman.  As such, that record wouldn’t be complete without the following:

I’m exhausted.  I’m sick and tired of training.  I want it to be over.  I want to give up.

Even people who don’t run marathons have heard of the infamous wall, the moment (which varies, but for many people is around the 18-22 mark) where you body abruptly decides that it has had enough of this BS and wants you to toss it in and go for a beer.  You need to be able to push through that pain and discomfort, trust in your physical conditioning.

Well, I’ve discovered that when it comes to preparing for an Ironman, there is a training wall.  How did I discover this?  By running headfirst into it.  What does this wall look like?  I don’t really know; all I can tell you is that it is one massive motherfucker.  But I can tell you what some of the individual bricks look like.

“I have never been a quitter. . .” Oh put a sock in it, Dick.

I am so over running and biking in ninety-plus degree temperatures and an atmosphere composed mostly of water.  I could have predicted. . .wait, I did actually predict it, in writing, in this blog, way back in October, that because this is the year I had signed up for an Ironman, the DC region would eschew its usually mild winter and be subjected to one of its worst winters on record.  And so it came to pass.  And lo, the masses were discontent.  What I didn’t predict is that it would also result in one of the worst DC summers on record.  These workouts have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  Yes, I know, there is nothing fair about life and if there is such a thing as justice in this world I’ve yet to see it.  Nevertheless, this feels so fucking unfair.

At the end of every weekend I have to do minor loads of laundry out of fear that all my soaked workout gear will rot if I don’t.

I sleep a ridiculous amount.  Ten hours last night, for example.  That’s on the nights when I can actually get to sleep.  Disrupted sleep is a classic symptom of over-training, but that’s where we are at the moment, in a constant state of over-training.

My body aches in various ways, pretty much all the time.  My ability to recover from workouts in the past has always been pretty good.  That capacity is gone.  Each new workout makes everything hurt again, and will usually make something completely new hurt.  “Recovery” weeks are a bit of a joke.  They are slightly less intense than full-on build weeks but nowhere enough to let you recover completely.  At abut the same training point last year Mary wrote about this on her blog.  However it is small comfort to know that this is normal.  It isn’t normal.  For people training for an Ironman it may be normal, but for normal people it is decidedly abnormal.

Ibuprofen now constitutes its own food group.

I’m nursing my body toward the moment (only a few weeks away, but it seems like a lifetime) where we will begin to taper.  I have all kinds of low-level discomforts and pains and minor injuries; nothing that is preventing me from completing workouts or races, but certainly things that I feel while I’m running and even cycling.

I’m also nursing all my equipment toward the race.  Doing this volume of training takes a terrible toll on your gear.  With only one of us with a job over the summer (and because of the way academics are paid–over nine months–virtually no money coming in the summer), we’ve had to watch what we spend.  There are all kinds of things I would like to do to the bike, but I’ve kept it to the essentials (a compact crank, and that’s it).  If my bike shorts make it to Ironman without becoming transparent or disintegrating completely it will be a miracle.  But other vital stuff wears out continuously: chains, goggles, running shoes.

I dread workouts.  Most disturbingly, I now dread the love of my life (after Mary, that is), cycling.  On Friday I biked to work in overpowering heat simply to try and remind myself what it was like to be on a bike when you didn’t have to.  I tend to enjoy being on the bike once I’m actually there, but motivation to get there has left the building and slammed the door on its way out.

Motivation for doing anything, actually, has left the building.

Half the time I really want to sit down and have a good cry.  But I don’t have the energy.

Dread at going to training sessions now coexists in a quite unhealthy S/M relationship with guilt at missing training sessions.  Because I can no longer physically/mentally do everything.  Each week I’m having to be strategic about what workouts I can and can’t do while still recovering enough from the last weekend’s purgatory in order to making it to the hell of the next weekend.  Stuff I know I shouldn’t be shedding–strength–is nevertheless, shed.  Mostly, so too are the high-intensity bike workouts (although I can to some extent make that up with biking to work).  Sometimes there are logistical reasons; I’ve ditched the Haine’s point ride because since the DC traffic gods decided in their wisdom to close Ohio drive at the height of tourist season and keep it closed until the next Ice Age I haven’t found a reliable way to get me from bike workout to swim workout that doesn’t leave me sitting in traffic until some time the next morning.  Of course, my motivation for trying to find a rational way round this relatively minor problem is nonexistent (see above).  I’m doing my best to try and keep up with the swim workouts, and this completely sucks.

Because swimming completely sucks.  I thought I was beginning to enjoy it there for a while, but now, mentally, I’m right back where I started.  I.e. seeing this as a completely irrational and unnecessary activity imposed on an otherwise enjoyable combination of events (cycling and running).  Duathlons are now starting to look very good again.  I thought I was getting faster there for a while.  But that was largely illusory.  Nothing I do in the pool seems to make any difference except in a negative way.  When we do zone 4 work instead of our usual low-intensity stuff, I swim slower.  When I concentrate on all those aspects that will supposedly make me more efficient (high elbows, finishing my stroke, etc.) I swim slower.  2.4 miles now seems as far out of reach as it did when I first started.

I’m perpetually cranky, a state that often tips over into irrational anger at the stupidest things.  Now, before all the jokes start, yes I know some people think this is normal for me.  But, while I might be genetically predisposed toward this kind of behavior, it is something that I usually keep in check.  In fact, exercise usually helps wonderfully with that.  One of the things that I’ve loved about training and racing especially is that as an athlete I’m a different kind of person: when things go wrong–and by “wrong” I mean everything from minor inconveniences (cyclometers that stop working, goggles that break, etc.) to the truly catastrophic (racing in everything from 100 degree heat to three-hour long hailstorms) I remain really positive.  I deal with it.  I no longer deal with it.  I get upset.  I get angry.  I’m tenderly nurturing some completely irrational dislikes of individual people and in fact people in general.

There is nothing fun about any of this anymore.


One thing in particular is disturbing me.  If you look at the “about” statement for this blog that I wrote right at the beginning you can see that I was sort of expecting that this whole odyssey would provide me with an answer to the question: why do an Ironman?

I was kind of figuring that I would have an answer to that question by now.  But I don’t.  Best candidates: “Because I signed up for it,” and “Because I can.”  Neither of which are meaningful answers. 

I know there is a purpose to this ridiculously hard, taxing phase of training that I’m going through at the moment.  Physically, I actually feel pretty certain that I could complete an Ironman distance race now.  Well, not right at this moment, but you see what I mean.  Well, except for the swim; that is still very much in doubt.  Odd as it seems, doing 18 mile runs and 110 mile bike rides has very little to do with physical conditioning.  It is about your mental conditioning.  When I look in the mirror I know it isn’t about my body.  I’m not going to win any Mr. Universe prizes.  But for the first time in my life I have shoulders instead of clothes hangers.  Muscles have been sighted in my abdominal region.  What needs to harden up is the mind.  Your body has an amazing capacity to suffer, and to go beyond suffering into new realms of pain.  For most people, their mind will quit well before their body does.  And 140.6 miles offers way too many opportunities for your mind to say, “Fuck this.  I’m outta here.”

Unfortunately, it is my mental state that seems so fragile at the moment.

I guess I always thought that this entire journey would, in some sense, be character building.

However, I’m not sure that I like the kind of character that is emerging.

Take your sympathy and shove it.

I’m not writing this so people can offer me consoling messages of love and support, and well-intentioned reminders that it will “all work out in the end” or “that it is almost over.”  If you read the above, you’ll see that that is just the sort of thing that will send me off the deep end and likely make me hate you.

I’m also not stupid.  I know this is all self-imposed.  I also know that what I’m going through is really nothing.  There are people who are doing the Ironman training who are wrestling with much greater obstacles.  Real physical injuries and equipment problems.  All kinds of bad shit going on in their lives.

I’m writing this for the same reasons I’ve written everything on this blog.  Writing helps me work things out, figure stuff out about the world and my place in it.  It is the primary reason for writing at all, in my view.  It is why I engage in the largely thankless work of teaching writing for a living.  Very occasionally, if your observations and your experience are true to the moment and the times, and you can communicate those insights, then maybe, just maybe, it will resonate with someone else.  And they will read what you have to say, and think, “Ah, that’s why!”

While it may seem as if I’m locked in my own mental cage at the moment the one positive thing–and it is a huge thing–is that I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in this.  It is one of the reasons I wanted to train with Team Z for this whole ridiculous escapade.  Suffering shared is. . .well, it is still just suffering, really.

So to my fellow inmates, each of you trapped in your own individual cages, here’s a shout out to each and every one of you.  The choice at this point is, after all, pretty simple.




8 responses to “The Wall

  1. Hang in there, Mark! I can’t promise it will get better, but the end is near.

  2. Hmmm. Cat, I think that’s what I’m afraid of!

  3. maybe it’s that, if your body (or self) don’t think you’re an asshole, they might not go the distance.

  4. Wow, great post Mark. Thanks for so eloquently articulating what I’ve been feeling, thinking, doing, etc. for the past 10 days. Although I loved the whole post and 100% can relate (except replace the suckiness of swimming with running and the thought of duathlons with aqua velos), my favorite lines are: “Motivation for doing anything, actually, has left the building. Half the time I really want to sit down and have a good cry. But I don’t have the energy.”

    • You’ll get through it Mary; we’ll get through it. Half the reason for writing that post is that there can be great power it just voicing what you are feeling, admitting it, giving it a name (or even just calling it names). Writing can be empowering in that way.

  5. Hey Mark, well said and I sympathize. Maybe remembering this feeling of shared suffering will help me get through childbirth in a few months? Good luck and hope to see you back at the track sometime…I’ll be the slow one who is much larger than you remember.

    • I have a hard time imagining you being much larger! The next few months will certainly be interesting. . .

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