Bad Runs

Before every run is a race between your mind and an excuse. Win it.  

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Every once in a while we all have one – a bad run. This past weekend I guess it was my turn for a bad run. My training plan had me scheduled for an 18-mile run.  The entire time I was running I felt like I was fighting with myself. I struggled to finish but it was not a comfortable run. When I finally finished, I allowed myself a moment of weakness to let it all out and I cried. I cried out of frustration; I cried out of disappointment in myself; I cried because I was tired and my body hurt; I cried because my Transverse Myelitis makes things harder for me. I have a big weekend of races next week and I want to go into them strong. This run didn’t help me feel confident about how I will do.

While a big part of running a marathon is the physical aspect, the mental game is extremely important too. I have read this quote many times over the years and it pretty well sums up the marathon mental game:

Your mind will quit a thousand times before your body will. Feel the fear and do it anyway.  

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If you have been reading my blog for a while now, you probably have figured out that I like to read about people who do incredible feats, like the marathon monks of Mt. Hiei or Lewis Pugh, the open-water long-distance swimmer who swam in the world’s most inhospitable waters. I read their stories to learn how they slay the mental dragons that would keep them from reaching their goals.

During my run, I tried letting my mind go empty like the monks do on their marathon walks. As hard as I tried, I found my mind firmly focused on negative things – my pain, my exhaustion, my frustration. Worse yet, my mind was giving up on everything.

Then I tried to rally my adrenaline like Lewis Pugh and direct my energy towards the run, kicking the butt of every one of those 18 miles. But I am not a former SAS reservist. I don’t have the toughness and tenacity that rigorous military training would give me. I didn’t have the strength to turn a negative into a positive.  I couldn’t kick a rock, let alone a mile.

Lewis had a really bad test swim right before he successfully swam at the North Pole. He took time to figure out why things went wrong and then went about making changes to ensure that they did not happen again.

Taking a page from Lewis Pugh’s book, I realize that I have to get my mental game back before my next race. I am analyzing my 18-mile run to figure out what I could have done differently. More sleep? Better nutrition before the run? Slowing my pace? Focusing on my breathing? Yes, probably all of the above and a few more things.

Attitude is everything. You simply cannot be beaten if, at the end of the day, some tiny part of you can still whisper, “I will try again tomorrow.”

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I guess it was a blessing that my bad run was during training and not during a race. My race pictures would have been pretty lousy if I was boohoo-ing in them. It reminds me that I am human and that every once in a while things won’t go perfectly. With that in mind I plan to have a positive report on next weekend’s races.

Ultimate Ice Water Challenge

One of the most notable pop culture phenomenons of 2014 has been the Ice Water Challenge. The Ice Water Challenge involves a challenge from a friend or family member to dump a bucket of ice water over your head or donate to the ALS Association. The goal was to raise awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). From the number of people who are doing the challenge, I would say that it has been pretty successful.

The ALS Ice Water challenge reminded me of Lewis Gordon Pugh who has done the ultimate Ice Water challenge to bring awareness to the impact of climate change on places like the North Pole and Antarctica. Lewis is a maritime lawyer, former SAS Reservist, and long distance swimmer. He was born in Britain but grew up in South Africa. He and his father shared a love for swimming. Though they had a pool, Lewis preferred the freedom of swimming in the open water. Living near the ocean around South Africa, he cut his teeth swimming in some of the roughest, most predator populated seas in the world.

Lewis has an impressive list of open water swimming accomplishments, including swimming 7 kilometers from Robben Island to Cape Town when he was only 17 years old. He was the first person to swim across Lake Malawi in Africa – 25 kilometers. The lake is home to hippos and crocodiles so he had to swim very fast at the beginning and at the end to avoid them. He swam the English Channel and Sognefjord, the longest unfrozen fjord in Norway at 204 kilometers. The latter swim inspired other Norwegian open water swimmers. They started the annual Sognefjord Challenge and formed the Fjord Swimming Club.

Lewis completed the most northernly long distance swim at Verlegenhuken, the northernmost point at Spitsbergen, Svalbard, a Norwegian island that borders the Arctic Ocean. The water temperature was 37 degrees (to put it in perspective, 80 degrees is the typical temperature of a swimming pool).

Lewis completed the most southerly long distance swim around Petermann Island in Antarctica in 32 degree water. He trained in Nigards Glacier Lake in Norway (32 degrees), which also earned him the record for the longest swim in freezing freshwater. Although he greased himself up for the English Channel swim, Lewis has not used a wet suit or grease to insulate himself from the cold in any of his other extreme swims.

Lewis ultimately set his sights on swimming in the most difficult place on Earth – in the Arctic Sea at the North Pole. In 2007 Lewis traveled by ice breaker to the North Pole. He was accompanied by a support team of 29 people from 10 countries.

One day before the scheduled swim, Lewis took a 5 minute test swim. Everything about the swim went horribly wrong. His goggles froze to his face. Procedures that they used to monitor his vital signs and communicate information to him failed. When he emerged from the water, he could not bend his fingers. They were swollen like sausages. The human body is about 60% water. When Lewis started swimming, the water in the cells of his hands froze and expanded, bursting the cells. He was in absolute agony; it took 4 months for him to regain feeling in his hands.

Lewis had to get the dismal experience out of his mind.  Probably due to his rigorous SAS training, Lewis has incredible mental strength to get through conditions that would severely injure or kill most people. Scientists that accompanied him on his swims have studied how his body responds to the extreme cold. Lewis is remarkable for his ability to increase his core body temperature in the minutes before he starts a cold water swim, called “anticipatory thermo-genesis.” Before he enters the water, he has the ability to increase his core body temperature 2 degrees.

On the day of his North Pole swim, Lewis headed out onto the ice, wearing his Speedo swim trunks, his swim cap, and goggles under his parka. Russian guards with rifles were there to protect him from polar bears. The air temperature was a brisk zero degrees. Lewis jumped into the 28 degree water and completed four 250-meter laps (0.62 miles) in 18 minutes and 50 seconds. His team rushed him back to the ship and he spent 50 minutes in a warm shower to warm up. As grueling as it had been, Lewis had completed the ultimate ice water challenge.

I am amazed by Lewis’s accomplishments. He makes me think of that expression “just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.” But by swimming in a place that should be frozen but no longer is, Lewis brings awareness to the fragility of our planet.

If you would like to learn more about Lewis Gordon Pugh and his swimming accomplishments, I recommend reading his book “Achieving the Impossible”. I found it fascinating. Lewis also has a web site with stunning photos from his exploits including a link to his TED talk on his North Pole swim.

Motivation

Runners World recently listed the “25 Worst Questions to Ask a Runner.” The list had many questions that I have heard over the years, including my favorite “How long is a marathon?” The #1 question on the Runners World list was “Why do you run?” I have to admit that this is a question that I have been asking myself lately.

“Why do you run?” is all about motivation. When I first started running, I was running to show support for a friend with an incurable form of lymphoma and raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. After my first marathon, I didn’t stop; I kept going. I ran for different charities including Ishan Gala Foundation’s Team Curing Hand (children’s neuroblastoma) and the New York Road Runners Club Team for Kids. But now I run for me; I have Transverse Myelitis (TM). I read recently “exercise promotes functional recovery” in TM patients. That has been my motivation to keep going.

Despite my physical need to exercise, I still find myself sometimes struggling to get out of bed and go for a run. I am training for a marathon and after 3+ months of training, my motivation is starting to peter out. My longer runs are getting more challenging because my mind tries to tell me it is time to quit.

While I was running today, I thought about the motivation of the monks of Mount Hiei in Japan. Mount Hiei is the home of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. If granted permission, a monk may embark on a Kaihōgyō, one thousand days of long distance walking, meditation, and prayer over a 7-year period. Their motivation is to achieve enlightenment and become a living Buddha.

A Kaihōgyō is grueling. During the first three years of a Kaihōgyō, the monk will walk 30-40 km (18-25 miles) per day for 100 days in a row, up and down Mount Hiei. During the 4th and 5th years, the monk will walk 30-40 km per day for 200 days in a row. During the 5th year, the monk also completes a 9-day fast during which he cannot eat, drink or sleep. In the 6th year, he will walk 60 km (37 miles) per day for 100 days straight. Finally, in the 7th year, the monk will walk 84 km (52 miles) per day for 100 days straight and then 30-40 km per day for another 100 days.

The monk completes his daily walk, regardless of weather, visiting the 250+ sacred places on Mount Hiei, pausing to pray at each. The monk wears straw sandals and in bad weather, he can go through several pairs in one day. The terrain is not easy on Mount Hiei and he starts his walk in the dark at 2 AM. The monk suffers from the same aches and pains that long distance runners experience but he does not stop. The monk only gets about 2 hours of sleep a night. To compensate for his limited sleep, he develops the ability to rest sections of his body as he moves along – his shoulders, his hips, his legs, etc.

What is remarkable is how the monk connects with the meditational aspect of a marathon. By focusing on his breathing, the rhythm of his walk, his mantra, or just emptiness, the monk is able to ignore his physical pain and quiet his mind, and hopefully achieve enlightenment.

If the monk successfully completes his Kaihōgyō, he will have walked the equivalent of the circumference of the globe. Only 50 or so monks have completed a Kaihōgyō since 1585 when they started keeping records. Many have died in their attempt.

During a long run, my mind can wander, focusing on an ache, trying to solve a nagging problem, or thinking about a long list of to-do items that need to get done. But there have also been times when I was out running that my mind focused on nothing; it was still. I just ran. Thinking back, those were the runs where I felt the most rested afterwards. Maybe that is what we can learn from the monks of Mount Hiei – how to use a long run to focus on nothing and clear our minds.

If you are interested in learning more about the monks of Mount Hiei, I recommend reading “The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei” by John Stevens. The second half of the book describes their training and the Kaihōgyō in detail. I also found an interesting documentary on YouTube that followed a monk as he completed his Kaihōgyō.

Like a Girl

For as long as I can remember, I have heard people telling someone that they do something “like a girl” when they want to insult them. It can be used for anything – run like a girl, throw like a girl, hit like a girl, cry like a girl (usually directed at men). Bottom line, it is not meant as a compliment.

I was surprised recently to come across something written in 4th century BC that could be the first written evidence of the perception of girls being less capable. I was reading a historical commentary called “Aineias The Tactician How to Survive Under Siege” by David Whitehead. Aineias was one of the earliest Greek writers on the art of war and “How to Survive Under Siege” is his only surviving work. His book was based on tactics that were used at the time and probably was a very useful handbook on how to defend a walled city given the type of weapons available. Some of his recommendations seem pretty obvious like using passwords and having pre-arranged signals so you can tell a friend from an enemy.

Aineias also described ruses that could be used. One of those is what jumped out at me. According to Mr. Whitehead’s translation of Aineias’s work, when one city was under siege and dangerously shorthanded, they disguised women to make them look as much as possible like men. These women carried jugs and bronze utensils to look like helmets and shields and walked along the wall that was most visible to the enemy. In the dark, that probably worked pretty well (this was before fancy telescopes and night vision goggles). The women “were not allowed to throw anything, [however]: a woman is recognizable a long way off by the way she throws.” Yes, Aineias probably started the whole “throws like a girl” prejudice.

Always, a division of Proctor & Gamble, recently kicked off a campaign to stop the negative perception associated with “like a girl”. They created a video where they asked women, men, young girls and boys to demonstrate running like a girl, fighting like a girl, hitting a ball like a girl. All of them pantomimed someone who was uncoordinated, had poor form, and lacked ability. It was pretty sad to see how people demonstrated what they thought a girl would look like running. I know I don’t run like any of them, even on my worst day. Then they were asked what “like a girl” meant. Everyone recognized that it was an insult. At the end, even the little kids realized that “like a girl” should not be something bad.

There are plenty of female athletes who have demonstrated that “like a girl” is just stupid, including Joan Benoit Samuelson and Shalane Flanagan, two tremendously talented distance runners. In fact, it was a woman, Paula Newby-Fraser, an 8-time Ironman World Champion, who trained Hines Ward, former Pittsburgh Steeler and Super Bowl MVP, to complete the 2013 Ironman Triathlon in Kona. No, I would say that “like a girl” isn’t bad.

If you would like to watch the P&G video, click on this link.