Tag Archives: challenges

Being Gratefully Miserable

I sat in the passenger seat of someone’s car, depressed and feeling very sorry for myself. A few minutes before, I had reluctantly handed over my timing chip and withdrawn from the 2015 Glacier Ridge 50-miler. Only ten miles remained but I was dehydrated and lightheaded. The aid station captain and medics had agreed it was a good decision.

A race staff member kindly drove me back to the start/finish area. In an effort to take my mind off myself and what had happened, I asked him if he was an ultrarunner, too.

“I used to,” he replied, “but I can’t anymore.” An enlarged heart had not responded to surgery and even short distances left him out of breath. Running had been big in his life (“my stress relief”) but it was no longer possible.

His story instantly cured my self-pity. I’d failed to finish one race, but there would be more to run. He was done for good. Talk about restoring perspective! I came away from it all the more determined to return the next year and finish the damn race. In 2016 I did just that, and have completed every race since, including two 100-milers and a 150.

2016 – a much happier ending!

I was reminded of this story when reading one of the fitness blogs I follow. A fellow athlete over fifty has developed knee problems. She continues to be active but can no longer run, and it took her some time to come to terms with that. In this post she describes the grief she felt and how she dealt with it.

This year I’m working toward improving my speed and performance at shorter races (up to the half marathon). Training can be hard and uncomfortable, and races can take place in some pretty miserable conditions.

The Winter Switchbacks a few years ago – one of the better sections.

But I can remind myself, even at those times, how fortunate I am to be able to run, and to push myself toward new goals and face new challenges. With trail ultrarunning in particular there’s a sense of adventure and shared experience (re: suffering) that brings me deep satisfaction. I guess that’s what keeps me signing up for the silly things.

When the time comes that, for whatever reason, I can no longer run, I expect that like the people in the stories above, there will be a period of adjustment. But I hope I can look back without any regrets, and be grateful for whatever comes next, and for what I can still do to make life enjoyable.

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Just a Little More

WAY BACK AT THE dawn of history (around 2007), I was on the mat at the start of a weeknight Aikido class. Our instructor worked us through the warmup routine until we got to the wrist stretches. Then he stopped for a moment.

“I was asked recently how far one should take a wrist stretch,” he told us. “Everyone is different, so there isn’t an absolute answer. But in general, take it to where it begins to hurt. Then push it just a little further.”

I’d been taught in exercise class not to stretch into pain. But his approach made sense to me. Where it begins to hurt is the limit of what the body is used to. To become more flexible requires pushing into the uncomfortable, just a little. Not enough to cause injury, but enough to trigger an adaptation. And we were to determine that point ourselves. The intent was to reach and push past our own limits, not someone else’s.

Okay, perhaps this is more than "just a little"?

Pushing past my limits of pain. Whether or not I asked for it.

I soon found that the principle of “just past your limit” carried over into every part of Aikido training. You can sit for five minutes in seiza? Great, how about six? I’ve never been the most flexible guy, but with practice I could eventually manage twenty minutes in that posture during Sensei’s lectures in advanced class. Leg-numbing, agonizing minutes, but I did it. The pain sometimes diverted my attention from what Sensei was saying, but as was explained to me, that too was part of training.

For my next trick, I will stand up. Or try to.

For my next trick, I will stand up. Or try to.

Later on I was introduced to the complementary concept of “just one more.” Think you’ve done as many breakfalls, or buki strikes, or whatever, as you possibly can? Well, you could probably manage just one more. Repeat until you’ve reached your goal. The brain knows it’s a scam, and yet it works remarkably well. To this day I use it at the gym during particularly brutal workouts.

Just one more - or 40 more. I forget.

Just one more – or 40 more. I forget.

During more than ten years of Aikido study, I’ve had many opportunities to use both “just past your limit” and “just one more.” Sometimes I use them consciously, but the excellent teaching and the example set by the senior students have already built them into the class atmosphere. You push through the challenges because that’s what everyone does. And pushing your limits little by little adds up over time.

But there have been a few occasions where my limits were not only pushed, but blown out of the water. Sometimes, like with a test or a race, I know what’s coming; there’s time to prepare, to psych myself up.

And then there are the ones that drop out of the sky, smack me upside the head and dare me to beg for mercy.

It’s July 2010, near the end of an intense, two-hour advanced class. 90 degrees in the dojo. Sensei calls for a series of breakfalls. We begin with backward falls and progress to forward rolls. Sensei calls out the first sixteen (two series of eight), and then each student in turn calls out another sixteen. There are six or seven students in the class and I’m the most junior, so I count last.

My attempt at a forward roll.

My attempt at a forward roll.

The set isn’t all that bad, but Sensei immediately begins another. I’m now really tired and sore, and my form is slipping. But I keep up as best I can. At my turn to count the adrenaline kicks in, and I complete the final sixteen rolls. I stand in dizzy, triumphant exhaustion. I’d pushed past my limit.

Except Sensei doesn’t call a halt.

“One more set!” his voice cries though my fog of fatigue. “Hajime!”

WTF? This isn’t “just one more,” it’s dozens more. I’m already past my limit! But the other students start the breakfalls, and there’s nothing for it but to go along.

My world shrinks to a small rectangle of canvas, the sound of my labored breathing, the mat quivering from the slapping of arms and legs to the inexorable “ichi-ni-san-shi...” cadence of whoever’s counting. My pants are untied and coming loose. I can barely push off the mat enough to roll instead of drop flat on my face. Just one more. Just one more.

Then, finally, it’s my turn again. I’m ready to collapse into a soaking pile of dogi-clad bones, but I call out those last sixteen rolls like a Marine. If I’m going down, it won’t be with a whimper, dammit. “Roku!” Roll and stand. “Shichi!” Roll and stand. “Hachi!” Roll and stand.

Yame!” Sensei calls. It was over. We lie flat and relax, then stretch. My head clears, and we line up for end of class. Sensei smiles at us. “Excellent work,” he says. “Four hundred! And no one quit!”

Four hundred continuous breakfalls at the end of two hours of hard work. I’m stunned. From the accomplishment, yes, but also from what Sensei has just said. Quit? As tough and as painful as those sets were, the thought of giving up before Yame had never entered my head. Never an option.

Looking back at it now, those roughly twenty minutes were truly life-changing for me. My body had put out the effort and endured the pain to push past its physical limits, and I’d had the mental discipline to hold myself together during it all. Out of it came a sense of inner confidence that I was capable of far more than I’d imagined before.

'Nuff said.

‘Nuff said.

The class took place years before I became a marathoner and then an ultrarunner, or started cycling centuries, but I think that my Aikido training, and in particular that one breakfall session, made all that possible. All that “just a little more” and “just one more” had set the stage to go well past, and many more than, my previous limits.

Thanks to my wonderful Aikido family for the lesson.

Perspective Regained: Hills are Hard, But . . .

“I want you to push yourself on the hills,” my Saturday running assignment read. “Dig deep and crest the hill before you let off the gas.”

Saturday’s route would be a 14-miler that included several of the more punishing hills in the Ann Arbor area. In particular, the climb up to the Barton Hills Country Club is a soul-sucking slog even on good days. And after a week of stepped-up training I was feeling less than 100 percent from the start.

Coach Rob Morgan

This man (Coach Rob) was responsible for today’s route. He’s also married to Coach Marie. I sense a conspiracy here.

It was my own fault, of course. I was dumb enough to tell Skip, my Body Specs trainer, and Coach Marie that I wanted to work on getting stronger and faster over the winter. They have taken on the task with alacrity; on Thursday I actually heard an evil cackle from Skip as I groaned my way through one particular torture involving hand dumbbells.

And the Saturday long run? Normally I look forward to it. But this one was more like a trip to the dentist; you know it’s in your best interest, but it ain’t gonna be no fun. I was fretting too much about it, so I went to bed early and read a chapter about the Battle of The Bulge from Killing Patton, which my father-in-law loaned me over the holidays.

And those few pages were enough to restore my sense of perspective.

In December 1944 the men of the 99th Infantry Division faced a surprise onslaught from the German army, digging foxholes and defending themselves in freezing weather without winter clothing, waterproof boots, or sufficient weaponry.

American infantrymen of the 290th Regiment near Amonines, Belgium. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

American infantrymen of the 290th Regiment near Amonines, Belgium. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

They suffered intensely and took heavy casualties. But they blunted the attack and played a key role in preventing the Germans from reaching the key port of Antwerp. And they did it because it was their job, and it had to be done.

And me? I was going to have a challenging run the next morning, but it would be done with warm clothes, good shoes, and plenty of sleep beforehand. And I could stop early, or even not run at all, if I chose.

So long, worry and self-pity. Which was a good thing. (*)

The run went about as I expected. Per instructions I ran the level parts at a steady 8:15 to 8:30 pace. Then when a hill came up, I took off hard and tried to sustain the effort until after I crested the top.  I didn’t always make it, and many were the times I was bent over gasping for a bit. But a funny thing happened. Despite very tired legs I kept up a solid pace the entire way, and I even repeated a hill on the way back to see how my time differed from early in the route.

Coach Marie was at the studio when I returned. “You look good,” she said. So much for any attempt to complain that it was too much for me. This spells trouble for next week. I can’t wait.

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(*) I have more thoughts about the contrast between that generation and ours that I will save for a future post.

Run Woodstock Part Deux: Shutting the Brain Off

Ninety percent of this game is mental, and the other half is physical. – Yogi Berra

Training for my first marathon four years ago, I ran 16 miles along the back roads from Honor, Michigan to Beulah and Benzonia, then back. It was a pretty route, but by mile 13 I was sick and tired of running it. Not physically exhausted, but mentally.

Three miles still to go, the little voice in my head said. That’s practically forever.

There was no shortcut back to my car, so I had to stick it out. It helped that I’d strategically parked at an ice cream shop. But I was pretty discouraged. In two months I have to run this and ten more, the voice said. Given this run, how am I gonna do that?

Shirt-Running Sucks - 2

The answer was to do more long runs to get the mind used to that distance. And after making some basic adjustments, such as conceptually breaking up long runs into manageable segments, I had no more trouble with self-doubts.

First 2 miles in. Just 30 more of those to go!

First 2 miles in. Just 30 more of those to go!

With that level of mental discipline I got through my first marathon, first 50K ultra in 2012, and first 50-miler in 2013, so I figured I would be okay for the 100K in 2014. Instead, I hit several mental challenges that I was unable to overcome:

Empty Tank of PatienceDistance stretching. Four miles (the distances between aid stations at Woodstock) are short hops on the road, but on singletrack that same distance seems doubled. Distances also stretch out in the dark, so trail running at night called for a full tank of patience. Instead, it was one of the first things I ran short on.

The worst was the section leading to the second aid station. During my second loop it seemed like I would never get there. When I finally did, all I could think about was having to do it twice more. My attitude had soured, and I was no longer having fun – a bad sign on an ultra run.

I thought so!

I thought so!

Pain management. Sore feet and chafing got worse as the night wore on. By the third loop the Body Glide wasn’t working and I was constantly adjusting my shorts, without much relief. More pain came from tripping on roots and rocks, and from branches in the trail that stung my ankles. I dealt with this increasing discomfort by getting more and more frustrated.

Bonking. When inadequate hydration and electrolyte management caught up with me, I didn’t have the focus to work through the nausea and correct the imbalances, and allow myself to recover. Despite having plenty of time to rest and still finish the race, I dropped out at the 56K mark, done in by a combination of things, but above all, insufficient mental discipline.

Yeah, that pretty much covers it.

Yeah, those tabs pretty much covered it.

Over the subsequent year I fixed the bonking problem, but as Woodstock 2015 approached I still worried that I needed a way to handle the mental challenge of those loops in the dark. Help came from an unexpected and last-minute source.

The night before the race I went to a local runner’s clinic on handling long runs. Most of the advice I’d heard before, but one comment stood out: the need to shut the brain off.

Not completely, naturally; a trail run requires being alert to the course and your physical condition at all times. What needs shutting off is the mental chatter – the continuous stream of trivial thoughts, especially the negative self talk and worries. So I would work on getting into a “zone” – a disciplined, quiet mind, at peace with itself and living entirely in the moment. Here’s how I applied it.

One flag at a time.

How do you finish 100K? One flag at a time.

– I created a mantra for myself: Focus on the trail in front of you. The milestones will come. Every time I began to fret about how much distance I had left, I silently repeated this mantra and I would settle back into the zone.

– During the stretches when the aid station seemed light-years away, I would remind myself, It’s really not that far. It just seems longer. I even used it when I passed a runner on that interminable second segment. “Man, they must have moved the aid station,” he said. I assured him out loud what I’d been telling myself silently.

– When I tripped over roots or rocks I told myself firmly that it was over and in the past. Then I’d forget about it. If that didn’t work I would stop and walk until I returned to the zone. Running is a happy activity for me; I would not run angry.

– When pain came in my feet, legs, or shoulder, I did not fight it. I acknowledged it was there, embraced it as part of the experience, and let it go.

– Staying hydrated and salted kept me on an even keel. I had no nausea or swings of equilibrium to deal with. But just in case, I was prepared this time to deal with it. As I overheard one pacer telling his runner, “You’re not having a bad race. You’re having a bad moment. You will get through it.”

marathon-sticker

The results exceeded my highest expectations. I stayed in a steady, positive mental state throughout the race. And one week later I’m still on that high. Maybe I should do this more often?

Make More Mistakes