“Hitting the wall” is the term runners use to describe the moment when the bottom seems to fall out of their stamina, major exhaustion sets in, and doubt may surface about whether it’s even worth continuing.
Statistically, it’s most likely to happen around Mile 19.
It’s not too different from that moment described by mythologists and epic storytellers in which the hero must face a challenge that will shake her to her bones and threaten everything. It’s the final trial she must endure before she can finish her quest.
Signs of hitting the wall
Hitting the wall can feel like many things but among possible symptoms:
- Physical signs like exhaustion, cramps, chills or heat, and extreme thirst or hunger.
- Mental signs like mental fog, lack of focus, and disorientation.
- Existential signs like piercing doubt about whether it’s worth continuing. What was once a dream feels more like a nightmare. Quitting looks like a viable option.
Maybe a runner hit the wall because she was underprepared, her body wasn’t properly nourished, or she started out too fast. Maybe she did everything right and it just happened. It doesn’t matter. What she did before is done.
At Mile 19, the question that matters is “What now?”
Many kinds of marathons
Many of us are running marathons, without special shoes. Coping with COVID was/is a marathon for many.
Not all marathons are intentionally chosen. Some we fall into one when we take on a piece of work that looks like ours to do. Others are glorious creative challenges. Some potential marathons I’ve observed:
- Launching a business or practice.
- Caregiving a loved one over a prolonged period of time.
- Creating a piece of art or preparing an exhibit.
- Writing a book or long piece of music.
- Working to help the environment.
- Coping with a disease or a condition.
- Dealing with major loss.
Even the projects that once looked like great opportunities can become heavy, as we work with them over hours, weeks, or years. What started out as an exciting, ambitious endeavor begins to feel like a weight we are dragging.
At Mile 19, the energy that might have infused the happy beginnings of a project starts to leach out of us— like air slowly fizzling out of a tire.
A book marathon
This week, I told my book marketing coach, “I feel like I’m foggy-headed and running out of steam. I almost don’t want to do what I need to do to launch the book, even though I’ve LOVED working on it. But now things feel heavy and hard and I’m overwhelmed. And my “I don’t wanna” voices keep getting louder.”
Then I asked her, “Is this normal?”
Her smile lit up the Zoom screen as she replied, “It’s VERY normal. In fact, ALL of my book clients seem to hit the wall at your stage—as they approach publication and have to promote their books.”
I was relieved. I wasn’t defective. I was just at Mile 19.
Signs of hitting the wall on a project
In observing myself and others, I’ve observed these signs of Mile 19:
- The colorful passion that once sustained you turns to gray.
- You feel discouraged about ever finishing what you are working on.
- You lose focus.
- You feel very, very tired as if you’ll never have the energy you need.
- You despair about whether it’s worth it.
- While doing almost anything else is more appealing, your spunk is pretty minimal.
How marathoners deal with Mile 19
After a little research, I distilled this list to help myself, adding a couple of ideas that runners can’t use in the midst of a race.
Slow down. Runners can walk the last miles or parts of them. We can slow down the pace of trying to meet our demands on ourselves. In fact, slowing down is the only choice the body gives us, so we might as well say yes.
Adapt. Runners plan for the route but never know what will happen on the day of a race. Planning ahead is great—but theoretical. The race gets run in the moment, and that moment is always changing.
Get support. Hear the cheers. Crowds line the streets of the Boston Marathon, cheering on the marathoners as their energy begins to wane. Even if we’re not running, we need cheers as well—or at least the support of those who know what we’re up to. And it’s OK to ask for it!
Let go. At Mile 19, it doesn’t matter that a runner started out too fast or ate the wrong breakfast. That’s over now. What matters is keeping going. A marathon is challenging enough—no sense carrying the weight of additional disappointment for what we might have done differently. And while you’re at it, lighten the load. When approaching the end of a marathon, it might be good to put aside other projects—at least for a while.
Clear the mind. Runners may deliberately use positive affirmations or images to try and push through any incoming despair. While I’m not a big proponent of affirmations and positive thinking, they may serve in a pinch. In addition, I can try to:
- Distract myself until I can shift my mindset.
- Observe the drift of my mind and add some balancing thoughts.
- Notice what’s happening, and let my interest in the present moment keep self-judgments at bay.
Take a break. It may be hard for runners to spend more than a few extra minutes at a pit stop, but the rest of us can take breaks. Personally, I find this hard to do in the middle of a project that’s not going well, like when a piece of software refuses to cooperate. It’s so tempting to think, “If I could spend xxx more minutes, maybe I could fix this,” as I become increasingly desperate and depleted. But pushing rarely improves my brain power. Better to call a break, take a walk, or throw some paint around. (I’m preaching to myself here.)
Sleep. This step is not an option for runners at Mile 19, but it is critical. Shorting sleep may work for an occasional sprint, but it will never get us through a marathon.
Normalize it. Knowing that Mile 19 can affect anyone on a marathon helps us prepare. Many projects, like a race, have a life cycle—beginning, middle, and end. Some stages may be tough.
Like a hero in an epic drama, we know that before we reach our destination, when we feel like we are at the end of our rope, we may face the very challenge that is the hardest of our journey.
With luck, we’ll hear the cheers, forgive our falling apart and brain fog, find our inner reserves, and move toward our destination, at a pace that’s right for us.