‘The Wall’, or, What I Talk About When I Talk About the 400 Metres

The first time I vomited from running was the first time I ran the 400 metres. It was my freshman year of high school, at an indoor track meet against our rivals, Ipswich. Like most high school sports events in Massachusetts, a small state dominated by nerdy east-coast democrats, the meet was a minor and somewhat ramshackle affair. There were about five legitimate spectators – all parents – and the gun kept misfiring. The entire place stunk of gun smoke, sweaty gym socks and meatloaf from the adjacent school cafeteria. Even so, the afternoon was going well. I had won the 55-metre dash with relative ease and we were trouncing Ipswich. But then my coach walked over. ‘Plitt, warm up,’ he said. ‘You’re running the 4×4.’ The 4×4 is track-slang for the 400-metre relay, in which four people run 400 metres each, passing a baton between them. I was slated to run the second leg.

The 400 is a notoriously excruciating race. This lap around the track is just short enough to be an all-out sprint and just long enough to test the limits of pain endurance. It leaves even the fittest of runners sucking for air, their legs aching hideously. The 400 is particularly infamous for what runners call ‘the wall’. A runner usually hits the wall with about 100 to 50 metres to go in the race, when short-term stores of energy run out and the body begins to course with lactic acid. Anyone who has hit the wall before recognises the signs: the clenched jaw, the head retreating, turtle-like, into the neck, the breakdown of the stride into robotic jerks, the sudden, awkward shift to slow motion. Watching someone hit the wall is like watching a wind-up toy sputter to a stop. ‘He’s hit the wall’, we’d cluck to each other with a twinge of satisfaction from the stands, ‘it’s over’.

Many have described language’s failure when it comes to expressing pain. Virginia Woolf, for instance, found the nouns we have for our ailments woefully inadequate: language ‘has no words for the shiver and the headache’, she complains in her essay ‘On Being Ill’. There are myriad verbs – some rather beautifully onomatopoeic – for vomiting. One can throw up, puke, spew, be sick, heave, hurl, retch, blow chunks, chunder and even drop the carpet pizza. But though these words are descriptive, immediate, visceral, they tell us little about how vomiting actually feels, about the isolating and consuming experience of a specific agony. In the end, we struggle for words that will reach beyond the descriptive and suggestive for some kind of empathetic thread that conveys the pain of the wall, and the long, messy, acidic post-400 expulsion that follows.

I remember very little of those first 150 metres. The most successful sports moments are often paired with a shutting down of the mind, when, as David Foster Wallace puts it, we manage to momentarily ‘bypass the head and simply and superbly act’. And indeed, my pre-race anxieties – would my legs function? Would I drop the baton? Who was that large-thighed Ipswich girl doing explosive frog jumps next to me? – dissipated as soon as the baton was in-hand, usurped by pre-learned body mechanics. But then, with 50 metres left to go, I hit the wall. Suddenly, my legs wouldn’t move. They burned. I couldn’t breathe. So this was it. With tiny jerk-like steps, I staggered ragged-breathed towards my waiting teammate. ‘I’ll never do this again’, I remember repeating, mantra-like, to the slow beat of my ineffectual footsteps. The syncopated rhythm of the Ipswich girl’s worryingly more up-tempo strides joined in, increasing steadily in volume. With 10 metres to go, I felt her hot breath on my neck.

Ipswich had hit her own wall, it turns out, and I somehow scrambled to the finish line first. But I couldn’t even wait for the conclusion of the race before I zeroed in on the nearest trash can and promptly emptied the entire contents of my stomach into it. Up came my lunch – a peanut butter sandwich, an orange, three Oreo cookies – and a candy cane I’d unwisely consumed an hour before, which dyed the whole mess a bright shade of red. Over the course of what turned into a 30-minute retching session, various girls from the team came over and, noses pinched, cooed words of condolence and congratulations. We’d won the relay, but I didn’t much care. At some point, my coach approached. ‘Great race, Plitt, you’re on the team.’ I dry heaved again.

I continued to run track, all through high school and then for four years at university. It did get better: by my last years of college, I hardly ever threw up and the wall, through a combination of training and psychological acceptance, became more manageable. But it was still painful. My coach in college was a compact and terrifying man known for his apparent heartlessness and a training regimen that was more suited to Rocky or American Gladiators than amateur college track. Every November, Coach White made us race one mile up a hill pulling tyres strapped around our waists; it was the only time I saw him smile.

His assistant was a football has-been named Dick Farley, who found solace in college sports when his own pro career finished soon after it began. Coach Farley was fond of aviator sunglasses and reminding us not to feel sorry for ourselves. ‘You think this is bad. At least you’re not in Fallujah!’ he’d bark in his thick Boston accent as we sprinted between holes at the local golf course. We pretended to love pain because it was the only leg-up we had on the sexier sports like football and basketball. There’s a perennially popular t-shirt slogan in the track world that taunts ‘Our sport is your sport’s punishment’.

Why did we subject ourselves to so much optional torture for so long? I don’t have a clear answer to this question, though I mostly chalk it up to competitiveness. Track provided a good outlet for what polite parents and teachers have termed my ‘healthy’ sense of competition. More simply, I love winning, and winning seemed to come more easily on the track than it did in any other area of my life.  But even that didn’t prove enough. As soon as I left university, a time after which competitive sprinting becomes the realm of professionals or desperate stragglers who join track clubs, I swore to myself that I would never sprint again.   

As track races further into the recesses of my personal history, though, I’ve begun to miss it. Perhaps it is because – like a woman after childbirth – my body has made me forget what the wall really feels like. But I think it’s also because track was a world of assured purpose: a world in which there were always winners and losers, where clichés were true and useful, where hard work was measurable and usually paid off. I don’t miss the pain, but I do miss the certainties that it embodied. On the track, pain was synonymous with success and reward. It’s more than we can say for the real world.