Sunday, April 26, 2015

Digging deep in the face of mediocrity

As part of revisiting my Gorge Waterfall 50 k race experience I had to concede that my mental fortitude -or lack thereof- might have been the biggest limiting factor to finishing stronger.

It seems to be easier for me to prepare physically for a race than it is to prepare mentally. I usually ask myself on race morning: "How much are you prepared to hurt and suffer today?" I think it is a good question to ask and it prepares you for the fact that there will inevitably be some discomfort involved while trying to race to the best of your abilities. Even if you are mentally prepared though some discomfort will sneak up on you during a race. How do you manage not to be dominated by the pain and exertion though? I suppose you also need to answer the question: "Why should I make myself hurt in the first place?" There are two types of physical discomfort during a race. One is the kind of pain that you are trying to avoid as much as possible such as blisters, bruises, chafing and such. Then there is self-inflicted pain which comes from pushing your limits and racing hard.

Having a time goal can be a good motivator, but this is somewhat tricky to establish a realistic finishing time on an unknown course especially if you are having issues early on in the race. I am not the kind of person to get super competitive with the racers around me either, if I don't know them that is. If I know them, the race is on.

Everybody loves stories about perseverance, but the vast majority of them seem to focus on contenders or champions even if they might be the underdog of the narrative. It's somewhat easy to imagine what drives athletes in these situations: Winning, earning prize money and qualifying for an event or competition among others. What about the rest of us though? The folks in the middle of the pack who punish themselves tremendously to finish 112th instead of 129th? What are we supposed to use for motivation? If you have ever volunteered as a course marshall or at an aid station in a race you might have also noticed that the slower the participants are the more fun they seem to have.

Even though my primary athletic pursuit is trail running, I am an avid reader of Bicycling Magazine. I remember now retired pro cycling veteran Jens Voigt writing about his relationship with pain and discomfort and claiming that he treats pain as his favourite enemy. He relishes the opportunity to get to know and control it better every time he encounters it. It's a great little article and you can just substitute "run" for "ride" as you see fit. The idea is the same. After re-reading the article I am wondering if I spend enough time getting acquainted with physical discomfort in training. Probably not. I am afraid I should though. It's the best thing I can think of in order to prepare for race day. On the plus side: It is generally accepted that training super hard all the time is not what you want to go for for best results as well as for staying injury free.  So luckily I don't have to face my newly crowned favourite enemy every day. Maybe a couple of times a week will suffice.

I re-discovered another article on pain and suffering which delves deeper into the science of things.  I enjoy the reference to former pro cyclist David Zabriskie's habit of adopting a superhero persona in his mind while competing in time trials (and quite successfully at that too). A good portion of the article deals with the thesis that a so called "central governor" in the brain is what determines how hard we can go. This governors' job is to tell us that we cannot possibly go any harder while preserving some reserves in order for us to not collapse on the spot. There are great reserves of strength and stamina to be found if we manage to override the impulse to back off that is sent out by the brain. If you feel motivated now to go out and run or ride yourself to pieces, don't blame it on me though please.

If you still haven't got enough of reading up on the subject, here are three more great articles on pain and perseverance from

I especially like the concept put forth in one of the articles that our brain is like a board of directors which decides on the severity of a threat to our health and well-being and therefore lets us perceive the intensity of our pain signals accordingly.

After taking the time to look at the issue of digging deep, suffering and racing hard a little closer, these shall be my strategies to push myself hard and finish strong in future events:

Re-focus on form. This time I am not talking about the Caballo Blanco mantra of "Think easy, light, smooth, fast". That one works better for training rather than racing for me. Instead I will try to remember to tighten up my form when I start spending too much time in my own head or when I notice that I am getting sloppy.
Steady breathing, relaxed jaw and hands, arms pumping, cadence high, spine straight and long, shoulders back. Check, check, check and check.

As for developing an alter ego or super hero persona for races for myself, I think I will stick with trying to be the best version of myself. This might sound tacky, but I think it really touches on what will keep me going. There are a lot of people that are less fortunate than I am. They might be physically or mentally unable to pursue their passions. I am blessed to be able to run and live my life to the fullest for the time being and feel therefore obliged to not waste this opportunity. My mantra shall therefore be: Be the best you can be, always. This rule is great because it can be adapted to any situation. For example if you are racing hard and moving well, but you come across another athlete who is injured or in distress the logical consequence for me will always be to put my own ambitions on hold and and help out as needed. A good way to figure out what my best self would do is to ask myself how I would hope for my kids to react in the given situation. The idea is to try and see yourself from an onlookers perspective. This will usually help to make it easier to figure out how to act in a given situation.

The other day I happened to notice a runner on the seawall wearing a shirt that read: "Ride hard. Smile often." This reminded me of reading an article about the positive effect that smiling has on the brain. A lot more reading can be done on the subject. Go ahead and google it if you like, but it comes down to what is expressed in this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh:
"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy."
Since my primary athletic pursuit is running my mantra shall henceforth be known to be:
Run hard. Smile often.

I will furthermore try to be aware that goals have to always be re-evaluated or adjusted. If the goal of finishing the race under a goal time fails the event doesn't have to be a write off all together. If that happens I shall not fret, but try to focus on finishing and having fun in the process instead.

Having devised this ingenious strategy I also have to say that racing to ones' full potential in terms of speed might not be for everyone and I respect anyone who emphasizes fun and camaraderie over pushing their limits. As for myself, I will test my boundaries for a little while longer and see how far I can take my fitness or how far my fitness can take me. I also see the need to plan adventure runs and other events and training runs that focus on connecting with fellow runners. As with everything else in life I am striving for the ever elusive balance.

See you out on the trails,