TALLADEGA — There is new context here for the phrase “hitting the wall.”
For the moment, it doesn’t involve carnage and smoke, mangled sheet metal and dented psyches.
When NASCAR’s brightest star runs the Boston Marathon, as did Jimmie Johnson less than two weeks ago — not long after he had raced 400 miles at Richmond — “hit the wall” conversation is different. It relates to that moment in a runner’s race or training in which it seems putting one foot in front of the other is impossible, that something has paralyzed the progress.
It happened “a couple times, honestly. I would say my first reality check was at mile seven,” Johnson related to reporters Friday afternoon. “It was the first flat stretch of road and I couldn’t run the pace that I had hoped to. The heart rate that I desired to run the entire distance and I had to pull it back and then at halfway I was a minute, 20 seconds off the split time I needed and I wasn’t going to get any faster on the second half with the hills.
“I honestly just got into a pretty aggressive argument with myself and just told myself to stop looking at my watch, just quit it and run comfortably and see what the time is when you get home, get to the end,” he continued. “The next time I looked at my watch was on the final road and I saw it was like a 3:08 and something as I was approaching the finish line. I was like, ‘damn, I ran pretty good.’”
To wit: Johnson finished in three hours, nine minutes.
That’s 8.24 mph, figured a NASCAR mathematician.
Can we now officially put to rest the “drivers aren’t athletes” debate? Not that there’s exactly an Olympic 4 x 800 relay team waiting to form within the garage, but still …
Johnson has long been an avid cyclist. He even gifted Dale Earnhardt Jr. a hand-me-down bike to get Junior involved. He’s competed in triathlons. The Boston Marathon was “a bucket list item for me,” he said.
Still, the flinty competitor came out in Johnson.
“I was kind of in race mode and ran it hard,” he said. “I had a few arguments with myself along the way that ‘look, you just need to enjoy this and take it all in.’ There was definitely a mental battle going on through the course of the 26 miles, but just extremely painful and the most amazing experience I think I’ve had.”
With seven NASCAR championships to his credit, Johnson may not be a driver to whom his competitors rush to help. But there was no shortage of support in Boston. Said Johnson, “There’s a camaraderie in those events that is something we don’t get here.”
Johnson recalled the fans who offered their encouragement, and even a competitor who jogged alongside for a while, advised him about fluid intake and lifted his spirits “and ran off into the distance.” Then there was his race team on Tuesday when he returned to the shop “and was kinda hobbling in there.”
The meeting “had a championship feel to it,” he said.
However, you have come here to be updated on Jimmie Johnson, race car driver, not race runner.
The No. 48 team, with new crew chief in Kevin Meendering, has Johnson in 13th place after nine races, with four top 10s and a best of fifth at Texas.
“The first couple of downforce races we were not where we needed to be, but we’ve rallied back and we’re headed the right way,” he said.
There is ample time to climb in the standings, to find the magic on which Johnson floated just a few short years ago. See, there's one thing to remember about a 36-race schedule. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.
Veteran sports columnist Mark McCarter is a special contributor to The Anniston Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.