Tag Archives: self-discipline

The Workout of a Lifetime: Would Picasso Have Been Proud?

THE STORY GOES that Pablo Picasso was approached in a café one day by a woman who asked if he would do a drawing on her napkin. He agreed, made a quick sketch on it and said, “The cost will be 20,000 francs,” or some such enormous amount (some versions say $1 million).

“That much!” the lady exclaimed. “But it only took you five minutes!”

“No, my dear,” he replied. “It took me forty years.”

True or not, the story illustrates the lifetime of effort and experience it takes to be able to do something of quality while making it look easy.

Today’s workout at Body Specs brought Picasso’s napkin to mind. While hardly a work of art, completing it required drawing upon what I’ve learned and experienced since I began serious physical training fifteen years ago.

My workouts are assigned and supervised by trainers aware of my goals, and while the sessions range in intensity, occasionally one becomes a real test of what I thought were my limits. So it proved this afternoon.

This is from another session, but you get the idea.

Basically, I was given what the trainers call “supersets” consisting of a set of exercises performed in order, then “doubled” (repeated). For example, station 1 was monkey chin-ups, followed by ab exercises, followed by pushups. Repeat the three, then move on to station 2. I had a circuit of three stations in all, each with a set of doubled exercises. And I was to complete three full circuits.

After my first circuit I was spent. By the end of the second I needed to sit and rest after each exercise. My heart was pounding. I had nothing left. And I still had one to go.

Sure, I could have quit. All I needed to do was tell the trainers, “I’m done,” and head to the shower. It wasn’t a race, just a training session. And yet it had become, for me, more than that.

Because, for whatever reason, I’m an ultrarunner. And I’ve committed to the most aggressive race season ever, with the first race (50 miles) next month. Completing an ultramarathon requires mental and emotional discipline in addition to physical fitness. Patience, persistence, and dogged determination are needed to accept the continual discomfort and push through the inevitable low points. The mental muscles must be exercised, or they will fail you in a race as surely as undertrained legs.

So as I began the third circuit I called upon some principles I’ve learned and applied over the years.

  • From Aikido: breath control. Replace fast, shallow breathing with deep, slower breaths. This also relaxes the body. I did this after each exercise, establishing control before starting the next one.
  • From Aikido and ultrarunning: focus on where you are, not how much you have left. Do each rep with the best form you can. Then do another. “Remember,” Sensei said, “you can always do one more.”
  • From ultrarunning: pace. Take the time you need to complete the exercise. Don’t go too fast to show off. No one cares.

And, finally, I’d been here before, two-thirds through an extreme challenge, physically and emotionally spent, and ready to quit. Namely, the 65-mile mark at last year’s Lighthouse 100 (you can read my recap here). And somehow I’d found the strength to go on, and finish.

I slowly ground my way through the final circuit. One station, one exercise, one rep, at a time. My 30-minute session lasted well over an hour, and my muscles were shaking, but I completed it. Test passed. Until next time, of course.

So how did I reward myself? Like any health-conscious fitness nut would do:

Okay, it was really just the ice cream. (Peppermint Bark Moose Tracks, my new go-to treat.)

I also had a glass of tart cherry juice with my (healthy and nutritious) dinner. It’s supposed to help ease sore muscles. We’ll see if I can get out of bed in the morning. I hope so, cuz I should get a run in.

Publisher’s note: This post is available for sale for $1,000,000.00. Or best offer.

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It Changed My Life! Or Did It?

On a recent Saturday run I caught up to someone I hadn’t met before, and to pass the time I struck  up a conversation. Turned out she’d run the Western States 100 just two weeks prior. “I messed up my leg less than two miles into the race,” she told me, “and it bothered me the rest of the way.”

“But you finished?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Eight minutes before the cutoff.”

She said this in a casual tone, as though it were no big deal. But I knew she wasn’t downplaying what she’d done. Among ultrarunners, understatement is the preferred method for discussing races. So I then asked if she believed finishing that race was a true life-changing event for her. “Yes, definitely,” she said.

I asked her that question because I’d begun to feel the same way after finishing my own hundred-miler last month. Not that I’ve become a totally different person, but I’ve acquired a definite “before Kettle” and “after Kettle” perspective; a new reference point from which to compare life’s challenges.

This is going to stay on my fridge door for a long time, I think.

This is going to stay on my fridge door for a long time, I think.

For example, in the last few weeks I’ve been stuck in several long traffic jams, made worse because the air conditioning in my car is faulty. The most recent occurrence was heading up north on a two-lane highway, where a “seven-minute delay” (per cell phone app) stretched into nearly an hour. As I sat there steaming (figuratively and literally), the thought came unbidden:

You’ve run a hundred miles at a time. You can get through this, too.

This thought did not magically cure my impatience, as my wife can tell you. And yet, it did help. When one has steadily pushed through over 24 hours of continuous motion, a measly one-hour inconvenience seems rather silly to get upset about. Perhaps it even worked too well in my return from Toronto, where I endured two hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic before I got off the freeway to find an alternate route.

There are running jams, too, but the energy is much more positive. (2011 Chicago Marathon)

There are running jams, too, but the energy is much more positive. (2011 Chicago Marathon)

In reality, though, it wasn’t the race itself that changed my life. Running it was the culmination of all the training that went into preparation for it. Crossing the finish line was just the evidence that I could accomplish something I couldn’t have done before. Champion ultrarunner and coach David Roche puts it best: By the time you get to the start line, the work is done.

This is one of the appeals of ultrarunning that many others have written about; that in the end, the training is more about becoming a better person. Whether the goal is increased physical fitness, self-discipline, or even dealing with and overcoming addiction, the steady, consistent effort is what makes the end result possible.

So I suppose that means even if I hadn’t finished Kettle for some reason, I’d still be more patient and determined than I was five years ago when I began ultra training. Saying you’ve done X is just shorthand. Still, it feels really good to actually have done it.

But it hasn’t been just inner dialog. A couple weeks ago I was at Body Specs working through a particularly tough segment on a hot, humid afternoon. As I struggled to my feet I caught the eye of one of the trainers. She smiled.

“Bet you’d rather be running a hundred miles right now, huh, Jeff?” she asked.

Well, not really. But the thought was tempting.

On second thought - where's the starting line?

On second thought – where’s the starting line?