A few weeks ago I did a 30-mile (50 km) point-to-point run with my good friend along the iconic Forest Park trail that has a lot of elevation gain toward the end. He runs this trail once or twice a year though this was to be my first time joining him on it. I had been ramping up my training for about 3 months in preparation and longer training runs left me confident that this run was within range of my strength. However, that morning the weather was below freezing and colder by 10 degrees than what we had been training in. Within the first 5 miles, I could feel I was not as strong as I felt just a week before. On the icy trail at the 10-mile mark, I had a little trip, and then by 13 miles tissues around my right hip and left knee were seizing up unexpectedly yet I had more than half the distance still to go with most of the 2200-foot elevation gain in the last 7 miles. Two weeks prior I had done a very hilly 20 miler and felt much better toward the end of that than I did at only 15. I was wondering if it would just keep getting worse and worse and I would need to stop – and how would I feel if I did stop? Though my body was struggling my mind was doing well – I was calm, organized, and even joyful at being out on this beautiful forest trail exploring it from end to end. My goal was to finish 30 miles but with no particular time goal. My conditions for running it were that I’d keep going despite any pain or discomfort as long as these were not indicating destruction of the body that would keep me from running for weeks or months afterward. I train to remove destruction from the experience rather than tolerate it while reshaping my experience with the pain and discomfort into something positive.
Endurance activities are those that necessarily put you in a physically and mentally difficult situation. They provide the opportunity to make an agreement with yourself about what you will accomplish and under what conditions and then to go do it. Those conditions are determined by your values and long-term goals for engaging in endurance activities and represent your physical and psychological well-being. These agreements are present in the training process as well as the main event.
Once information about your body and environment starts coming in during the activity you may need to negotiate and adjust your goal or expectations for the day – but will that adjustment bring a satisfactory outcome or a disappointing one? An endurance event (versus a short event) is one that goes on long enough to give ample time for some parts of you to try to talk the rest of you into compromising your original conditions or quitting as the discomfort ramps up. It offers a lot of time to get to know yourself through the mental processes you engage in and the outcomes you experience.
Being an endurance athlete is first of all about making appropriate agreements with yourself and then keeping them. The negotiations that occur within the discomfort of the activity are a natural feature, not a sign that something is wrong. Internal debate and negotiation are part of the training and performance process. A good negotiation results in an outcome that might be different from what you aimed for at first with but still aligns with your values and long-term goals – it sticks to your original conditions. A bad negotiation results in an outcome that violates your original conditions, whether you end up achieving your goal for the day or not.
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In my case, I felt joy in trying to continue despite the discomfort. I felt empowered by a mental and technical toolkit that I could use to keep coaxing my body forward. I treated it as an experiment for self-discovery not a race with self-judgment. When the initial alarms were sounding in my body, I reviewed my original conditions and then the options for where I might stop if I needed to. Then I renewed my agreement to keep going up until signals indicated a threat of crossing the line of safety. As my range of motion was reduced by the stiffness in my joints, my pace lowered, and I started to struggle with staying warm enough. As the big descents and climbing started in the last quarter my hunger increased enormously. Rather than interpreting each reduction in performance as a reason to quit, I saw it as an opportunity to try to adapt. I put back on the clothing I had taken off earlier. I inserted short walking intervals on a schedule. I increased my snacking amount, chewed longer, and sipped a bit more water afterward to ease digestion. Descending became harder than uphill and I found that jog-hobbling downhill was less difficult on the knee than walking. I stayed focused on solutions to my challenges and kept talking to myself compassionately, urging myself forward with kindness.
I finished. I finished perhaps an hour later than I would have under better circumstances. I was exhausted and quite stiff but from experience, I understood I would recover in the week ahead. I was pleased with the process and even with the pain – I felt in tune with my body and the pain was a signal that things were working as they should. And even though I asked some parts to give far more than they had given in training these prior months, I kept that demand within boundaries that fit with my values and longevity goals. This slow but successful long run was the result of a good negotiation with a reasonable price to pay leading up to it and afterward.
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