Reflections on hitting the wall
By Josefine Lissner
Published June 15, 2020

It has been now two years since I participated in the Hadrian’s Wall Ultramarathon (or The Wall), a race over 69 miles or 110km in distance which follows the historic roman Hadrian’s Wall along the Scottish border from Carlisle to New Castle. Although I have hardly talked to people about this experience and the unbelievable fact that I was the first woman over the line after 11 hours 42 minutes, there has not been a single day since, that I would not think about it.

How it started

Three months before race day my friend Richard showed me the event’s website, basically stating how crazy this was. We both agreed that it was impossible for us to do. But during the week after, I noticed this thought repeatedly entering my mind: Was it really impossible? I started to shape a vision in my head of how incredible it would feel to finally run across the iconic Millennium bridge (with the finish line waiting on the other side) in Newcastle. That vision would become my driver.

Today, I understand that most actions we take should be motivated by their predicted outcome, rather than the feeling or comfort they might bring along the way.

The right mindset

Call it vision-driven or simply naïve, but little did I think about how to survive the 69 miles between the start and finish line. I set myself one simple rule to stick to: Don’t even spend a single second at an uncomfortable pace. This sounds like a conservative approach one should not apply to everyday life. But it essentially asks to spend resources wisely and wasting energy will hurt you on the long run. In case I would injure myself, I was prepared to stop instantly. My biggest concern was to get through this in a healthy state. This seems obvious, but runners who have trained for this day, often struggle to realise when it is pointless to continue.

To my mind, preparing for failure and accepting the worst possible outcome in advance is a key component of making more sensible decisions along the way. In return, this in fact reduces the likelihood of the worst case happening.

The rain set in one minute before race start and would last for an endless ten hours. What helped me dealing with the constant wetness was to make another use of my imagination. My rain jacket metaphorically turned into my castle where I would hide in and seek shielding from the rough weather. I simply shut the door, turned the keys, sat by the fireplace and waited until I would reach Millennium bridge. Intentionally, I refused to remind myself of the shear dimensionality of my undertaking. It literally has been a step-by-step approach right from the start, always only aiming for the next aid station. Partly ignoring the remaining distance helped me not to drop the mood. How would it feel after completing a marathon to realise that you had to run two more while it was still pouring with rain?

Not saying that the best way of dealing with challenges it to simply ignore the facts, but I believe that a less rational approach with a pinch of naiveté does help to muster drive and motivation in the first place. Similar to that, entrepreneurs tend to not think about the question on whether they would take the same career path again if they had known before about all the obstacles which they needed to overcome.

Mental and physical challenges

It quickly became clear to me, that I would be fighting this ultramarathon completely in my head. The longer the race, the more it turned into a mental challenge. I physically felt good that day and had successfully managed to sit back in my castle, letting my legs carry me through this stunning northern landscape. But after 50km my muscles became increasingly tired. I was expecting this to happen anyway. It was rather surprising that is did not happen earlier. However, from there on every step turned into a conscious decision and required more and more commitment. Whenever I stopped running my motivation would collapse like a house of cards while re-building it again got tougher. Detaching myself from the aid station after 70km was difficult. Around that time my transponder stopped working and the people tracking me online thought I had jumped off a bridge or died on the road.

These moments, when reality hits you with all its brutal insensitivity for your personal struggles, are critical. In hindsight, these are the decision points which will set the successful apart. So presumably, remembering this already helps to push through difficult periods. The problem people, me running these endless roads in the middle of nowhere included, seem to face is that their point of view becomes very subjectively focussed to personal pain and emotions. Generally, I found it helpful to always remind myself of the broader scene by widening my view. Imagine yourself for a moment as an external observer. This makes it easier to detach yourself from personal feelings, recognise the greater circumstances and reason more rationally.

My friend Scott

I was lucky to find another runner who perfectly matched my pace. His name was Scott, but I would not find out until afterwards. In fact, we hardly spoke despite having met after only 20km and running most of the remaining distance together. Plodding along in silence made it feel like we had been good old friends forever. We shared alternating ups and downs. I remember having my eyes pinned on his calves for hours as they steadily moved back and forth in front of me. We crossed the finish line together and I never saw him again. 

Finish sprint

After 90km I started thinking about walking the rest, because the likelihood of finishing became more evident and I had almost five hours of daylight left. I was ready to surrender and stop running. As it happened the people at the last aid station told me to my surprise that I was the first woman coming through. I was leading! My reaction to that included vast desperation, because there was no way now to not run the last 20km. No one could tell me what the gap to the next woman was and I became paranoid by the threat of her suddenly appearing behind me and overtaking with miraculous speed advantage leaving me in a cloud of dust behind. I re-gained determination by that fear and the wish to bring it home as I will most likely never have the chance to do so again. No one overtook me. I found out afterwards that the gap was more than one hour. Comfortable, but not enough if I had decided to walk. The last miles brought us slowly back into civilization following along the River Tyne, entering the quayside promenade which lead us towards the centre of Newcastle. It was a mild Saturday evening and so many people sat in restaurants and bars cheering us on. I could see the Millennium Eye appearing on the horizon and getting closer. My inner self was excitedly jumping up and down while my feet were hardly leaving the ground. Finally crossing this iconic bridge made me burst in joy – joy that I did not find the power for to express. And there was an immense relief. This whole race has been unbelievable, naïve to undertake in the first place, but it just went perfectly.

For the years to come this race strongly influenced my perception on running competitions. Until then I had entered a competition to be competitive, not just to participate. But at the same time now I knew that I could never deliver a race as perfect like that one again. In a way it enforced a more romantic sense of running within myself, which is just about the simplicity of movement and its naturality in the absence of competitiveness and purposefulness. While I enjoyed running without ambition, I lost the will to push myself physically. Entering competitions just seemed bluntly pointless to me, although other runners tried to encourage me.

Loosing the will to compete in one area I do not generally consider to be a bad thing. Maybe it just means that I have moved on and want to spend my energy differently. To my mind, in order to be successful in one field you need to embrace a certain snugness in others to keep a balance. During my master studies I noticed my interests and ambitions shifting towards becoming an educated engineer and engaging with technology and its future impacts while running lost its importance.

The hotel scene

Let me conclude this article by telling the joke my hotel seemed to play on me after I arrived there rather un-fresh right from the finish line. Firstly, the elevator was broken, which required me to carry all my luggage, dead limbs etc. onto the third floor. Walking was really hard at that point. Secondly, the restaurant was being refurbished. They would not serve food that night, nor for breakfast in the morning. And thirdly, there happened to be stairs within my hotel room! It seemed ridiculous having to climb more stairs after running all day to finally reach the shower. I considered just sleeping on the bathroom floor as stepping down was equally painful. Looking back today, I find it very entertaining. That whole scene would have made for a good comic. Just hilarious.