Mental Fight Club

This weekend I met Natalie. Negative Natalie, that is.

This isn’t my typical training story, recounted mile-by-mile. Instead, it’s about a valuable lesson I learned. It’s about the importance of strengthening your mind as well as your body. It’s about shutting down those inner voices that try to tell you that you’re not capable of achieving what you want to achieve.

First, some context: Tyler and I had another limit-pushing weekend of Ironman training. It was the kind of weekend that you anticipate with both excitement and dread. Our goals were twofold: Log lots of hours, and train with tired muscles to prepare for a long race day.

Friday

  • 1-mile swim
  • 120-mile bike ride

Saturday

  • 2.25-mile swim
  • 15-mile bike ride
  • 6-mile run

Sunday

We had great adventures and met inspiring people (like the man with one leg riding in the Challenge Ride, and the woman on the side of the highway whooping and cheering for riders all by herself). There were blisters and saddle sores, stinky shoes and sweat. There were tacos (lots of tacos). And there was Negative Natalie. I’ll get to her soon…

It was an amazing weekend, but the 120-mile bike ride broke me. 30 miles in I felt awesome. 50 miles in I started questioning whether I could make it. 70 miles in my mind was screaming, “This is so hard. This shouldn’t be so hard. What is wrong with you?” 100 miles in I was broken. Tears…cursing under my breath…battling a constant mantra of, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this…”

I did do it (you don’t have much choice when your car is still 20 miles away), but I lost the battle against that voice of self-doubt. I’ve read about athletes’ strategies for staying positive and getting through dark moments, but none of them have worked for me. Tyler’s support is usually the only thing that gets me to the finish line when times are tough. (I swear training is usually fun and rewarding. I love it and crave it. It’s just that hard work often comes with both highs and lows.)

The next day I shared this experience with my friend Jen, a clinical mental health counselor*. Her response was eye-opening.

“I often ask my clients to name their negative voice, so that they can begin to observe the distortions** with a bit of distance. For example, I call my negative voice Susan, and whenever I notice I am using one of the distortions, I calmly thank “Susan” for her input, and then ask her to leave.”

And with that, Negative Natalie earned her name. (To the Natalie’s of the world, please don’t take offense. It’s nothing personal! I invite you to name your negative voice Awful Anne, if you wish.)

Natalie is the voice in my head that tells me I’m not good enough. She asks questions like, “What is your problem? Why are you so weak?” She says things like, “That person over there is so much better/faster/stronger than you,” or, “This shouldn’t be so hard. Something must be wrong with you.”

Natalie is a jerk. She crushes my confidence, which impacts my performance. But next time, she’s going down.

You might be thinking, “This chick is nuts.” Or, perhaps you’re thinking, “Wow, I’ve been dealing with that same negative inner voice. I’m not alone. And maybe – just maybe – that voice is wrong.”

Thanks to the amazing wisdom of Jen, I’ve now recognized “Natalie” for who and what she is, and I’m ready to tell her to jump off a cliff the next time she tells me I can’t do something. (I should mention that Jen addresses her negative voice with humor rather than aggression. I might try that someday, but right now I need to destroy Natalie, just like the giant monsters destroyed the skyscrapers in that 1980’s game Rampage.)

So now I invite any of you who have struggled with self-doubt to give that voice a name. Recognize it, acknowledge it, and then overcome it. You’re better, stronger, and more capable than it will lead you to believe. And you can do it.

*Jennifer Trainor, MA, Ed.S. has been a scientific, evidence-based clinical mental health counselor for the past decade, working in Washington, D.C., San Diego, CA, and Old Town, Alexandria. Her experience spans across multiple populations and socio-economic statuses, and demonstrates proficiency in working with children, adolescents and adults. Always culturally sensitive, Jennifer has spent years advocating for social justice and racial harmony in a variety of contexts and environments, and has worked in both public and private sectors. She is also a licensed K-12 school counselor, and a certified Positive Discipline Parent and Classroom Educator. 

In addition to her mental health background, Jennifer has had extensive academic training in Buddhist meditation traditions, Indian philosophy and mysticism, and sports psychology. These academic pursuits led to professional endeavors teaching meditation and breathing classes at The Optimum Health Institute (OHI) in San Diego, CA, in preschools across San Diego county, and in her private practice. While at OHI, Jennifer focused her attention on learning about nutrition, digestion, detoxification, and lymphatic exercises, and was then able to create a wholistic healing program based on the principles of mind, body, and spirit coming back into alignment. 

**The term “distortions” refers to Cognitive Distortions, or thought patterns and beliefs that are misleading and/or false.

126.75 Miles Later…

It was a weekend of “lots.” Lots of adventures covering lots of miles, lots of emotions, and lots of lessons. We crushed goals, we made rookie mistakes, and we wrapped it all up feeling proud, motivated…and ready for a recovery week!

It was our third and final week of Willingness to Suffer Training (part of our broader Ironman training plan), and it was by far the toughest physical challenge I’ve ever faced. And yet, after 126.75 miles of swimming, biking, running, laughing, falling down and getting back up, we’re hungry for more!

Here’s how it went down…

Saturday: 1.75-mile swim

Location: Christiansburg Aquatic Center

Highlight

  • Swimming at an amazing facility with free admission for your first visit!

Lesson Learned

  • Don’t eat raw almonds right before exercising. Just don’t.

Sunday: Mountains of Misery Century Ride

Joe Shrader Photography LLC

The Mountains of Misery Century is a 104-mile cycling event in Newport, Virginia featuring 10,000 feet of climbing and a four-mile 12%–16% graded climb to the finish.

Highlights

  • Not falling over at the starting line (which was a very real possibility)
  • Mother Nature’s cooperation (we only got rained on for 10 minutes, despite the forecasted 100% chance of thunderstorms)
  • Learning that a mechanic was only 4 miles away when one of Tyler’s spokes broke (then eating PB&J sandwiches at the aid station while he fixed Tyler’s bike)
  • The awesome support staff and organization of the race – it was a fantastic event!

Lessons Learned

  • Always wear sunscreen, regardless of the forecast. Rookie mistake #1
  • Do an equipment scan before you start biking. After 20 miles of pumping my legs like a maniac and moving at a glacial pace, I realized that my brake was rubbing against my tire. A quick adjustment fixed the problem, but I had already lost time and burned through valuable energy. Rookie mistake #2
  • On big adventures you’ll almost always run into problems, big or small. Tyler had one bike malfunction after another for the entire day. If you’re patient, positive, and willing to ask for help, you can get through just about anything
  • Never underestimate an event that has the word “Misery” in the name
Joe Shrader Photography LLC

Monday: 21-mile run

Location: Country roads in Charlottesville, Virginia

Highlights

  • Leaving a dollar in a stranger’s mailbox (inspired by Dean Karnazes’ habit of putting dollar bills under cars’ windshield wipers as a gesture of “paying it forward”)
  • Stopping to eat honeysuckle nectar when we reached our emotional and physical breaking point…twice
  • Finishing the full 21 miles despite wanting to quit within the first 30 minutes

Lessons Learned

  • Bring more food and water than you need in case you have a hotter, colder, or slower run/bike/hike/etc. than you expected
  • If you’re deep in the “pain cave” and there’s no end in sight, stop and smell the roses. I’m sure we looked weird, but picking honeysuckle for a few minutes did wonders for us
  • You can do it. It’s okay if the desire to quit goes through your head early on, or even repeatedly. Just focus on making forward progress – one foot in front of the other, no matter how slowly – and you’ll eventually make it to your destination

Final Thoughts

My biggest takeaway from the weekend was this: Helping others succeed is just as rewarding as achieving your own success. I needed Tyler’s support to get through Mountains of Misery, and I returned the favor during our run on Monday. There have been countless instances where encouragement from Tyler and others made the difference between success and failure for me, and it’s my job to pay it forward.

We recently started cheering on strangers when we see them running or biking by (no matter where we are or what we’re doing). There’s always a chance that they’ll think we’re strange or misunderstand our intentions, but I’m willing to take that risk if there’s a chance we’ll lift their spirits. Give it a try!

Willingness To Suffer Training: Part II

Is it still an adventure if you bike 100 miles…in your family room?

We had the best of intentions as we wrapped up week 2 of our most intense training phase yet. Our nutrition and hydration had been on point all week, and we had a fantastic route planned in Leesburg, Virginia. Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn’t get the memo that we had a big day planned, and we awoke on Friday morning to pouring rain and thunder.

If we were true bad-asses maybe we would have gone outside anyway. However, I’ve never claimed to be one and I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of spending the day cold, drenched, and paranoid about skidding into a ditch. Does that make this Unwillingness to Suffer Training?

It may not have been the most epic adventure, but spending 5.5 hours on our bike trainers staring at the same little spot on the wall (“Is that a bug or a blemish?”) definitely tested our willpower. When it comes down to it, that’s what Willingness to Suffer Training is all about, right? I’ve heard tales of great triathlon coaches sending their athletes into small, dark rooms to run or bike for hours on end with no stimulation. I like to think we were replicating this method in our own way.

I also had the opportunity to strengthen my Good Judgment Muscles. (If you’re not familiar with the four major muscle groups – including Good Judgment Muscles – you can read about them here.)

I’ve been blessed with minimal injuries through the years, but across the last week my plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes) progressed from being slightly irritating to burning and stabbing with a vengeance. Walking was painful, and it was throwing off my running stride (which subsequently affected my ankle, knee and hip on that side.)

As much as I despise deviating from a training plan (or any plan, for that matter), I skipped our 15-mile run on Sunday. Am I still bitter about it? Yes. Will I need to skip more runs until my foot is better? Yes. Will skipping a few runs kill me or crush my chances of completing the Ironman? Probably not. Good Judgment Muscles, ENGAGED!

So, without further ado, here’s what Willingness to Suffer/Good Judgment Training Part II looked like:

Friday

  • Training plan: 2.4-mile swim + 100-mile bike ride
  • Lesson learned: Want to pass the time during an indoor bike ride? There are tons of free training apps and videos, and Global Cycling Network has some of the best, in my opinion. We did the Power + Endurance session twice and Race Winning Intervals once, then kept a steady cadence of 80-90 rpm for the rest of the ride.

Saturday

  • Training plan: 1.25-mile swim + 40-mile bike ride
  • Lesson learned: Getting back on the bike after a long ride can do a number on your butt. To reduce the discomfort, first apply plenty of anti-chafing cream. Then, accept the fact that it won’t get better until the ride is over (at least not for me); no need to waste energy waiting for the pain to go away. “Embrace the suck,” as they say in the military.

Sunday

  • Training plan: 40-mile bike ride (for me) and 15-mile run (for Tyler)
  • Lesson learned: Resilience and adaptability are as important as strict preparation when you’re working towards a goal. Even if you’re obsessed with following training plans to a “T” like me, it’s better to sacrifice a few training sessions to heal an injury rather than forge ahead and pay for it down the line. Trust your gut if something goes wrong, adapt, and don’t look back.

Willingness To Suffer Training: Part I

I’ve made a major discovery. The evidence has been there for years, but I finally put the puzzle pieces together as I started writing this article. My intent was to write about how tough our last weekend of training was, how hard we had to try (boo hoo), what we learned from it, and so on and so forth. But then, mid-sentence, I realized this:

Humans have four major muscles groups.

Wait…what? That’s nuts.

But really. Hear me out.

The four major muscle groups are:

  • Physical Muscles: The most well-known, these muscles move your body and can transport you over mountains, through valleys, and across finish lines.
  • Willingness to Suffer Muscles: When working towards a goal, these muscles convince you to put one foot in front of the other – no matter how badly you want to stop – until the job is done.
  • Good Judgment Muscles: These work alongside the Willingness to Suffer Muscles to help you gauge the appropriate level of risk to take. They help you determine when it’s time to push harder, and when you need to pull back to avoid serious consequences.
  • Friendship Muscles: These muscles counteract your ego by overcoming your desire to focus on you, and instead work to support, encourage and inspire others.

Until this past weekend, our Ironman training has been focused primarily on the first muscle group: Physical Muscles. We’ve gained strength, technique, endurance and confidence.

Last weekend we unknowingly transitioned into the “Willingness to Suffer” phase of our training plan. It was a shock to my system. I didn’t recognize what was happening, and I felt personally offended by the fact that the training got really hard, really fast, and I didn’t see it coming.

But now it all makes sense! If you’re training for a race or adventure that really challenges you, your training plan shouldn’t focus exclusively on strengthening your Physical Muscles. Instead, it should challenge and strengthen all four muscle groups, preparing you to overcome any physical or mental obstacle that may arise.

What “Willingness to Suffer Training” looks like
The correlation between one’s willingness to suffer and his or her likelihood to succeed has been broadly discussed (especially in the world of endurance sports). Until this weekend, however, I didn’t truly understand the concept. I’m now learning how far I’ll need to stretch my mental limits in order to achieve what I want to achieve.

So “Willingness to Suffer Training” has officially begun, and it looks like we’ll have about 3 back-to-back weekends of it before a brief reprieve. I’m hoping this training phase will help us increase our capacity for…well…being miserable.

Here’s what “Willingness to Suffer Training, Part I” looked like:

Friday

  • Training plan: 57-mile bike ride + 12-mile run (we cut the bike ride down from 90 miles when the unrelenting hills and heat got the best of us)
  • Summary: “Ugh! These hills suck! I’m too hot! I’m tired! I’m thirsty! How much farther? I hope I don’t run out of water soon. Eww! A bug just flew in my mouth! Can you believe I fell off my bike in front of those people?”

Saturday

  • Training plan: 1.75-mile swim + 45-mile bike ride
  • Summary: “That swim wasn’t so bad! My butt hurts. I’m bored. What do you want to do after this? I’m bored. My butt hurts. Okay…that wasn’t so awful…but my butt hurts.”

Sunday

  • Training plan: 11-mile run + 2.4-mile swim
  • Summary: “I hope it stops raining soon. Man, my legs are tired! Do your joints hurt? My joints hurt. Ooo, snack time! Clif Bar! Woohoo! Ugh, now I’m tired again. Why were you swimming faster that me? Were you trying to lap me? How rude. Oh…you weren’t trying to? I was just that slow?”

For any ultra-athletes out there, I won’t be offended if you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal? That’s like my typical mid-week workout schedule…maybe even easier.”

For me and Tyler, it was a wake-up call. Not a bad one – just a reality check reminding us that we’re going to need a lot of grit to get through the next 2.5 months of training (and the Ironman itself, of course).

A closing thought: “Suffering” is a relative term. I choose to train hard and push myself to my mental and physical limits because it makes me stronger. In writing this article, I realize how lucky I am to live a happy, safe, and comfortable life where my version of suffering occurs as a result of following my dreams. I’m grateful to have these opportunities and to have someone to share them with, and I’m thankful that suffering isn’t an inevitable part of my everyday life. Just wanted to share that!

Pain and Pickle Juice: The 2018 North Face Endurance Challenge

Sometimes you do everything right, but it’s just not your day. And sometimes what feels like inevitable failure ultimately transforms into a great success. This is the story of the 2018 North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington, D.C.

Logically, this year’s race should have felt better than 2017 (when Tyler and I completed the North Face 50K race for the first time). In 2018 we trained harder, ate healthier, and we were mentally prepared. With so many cards in our favor, I was confident that this year’s race would be a joy ride.

My ego was about to learn a very valuable lesson. But this story isn’t about the perils of overconfidence. It’s about buckling down and getting the job done, even when you think it might be impossible.

It’s 7:00am, and a dense fog lies between hundreds of jittery runners and the 31 miles of trail that we’re eager to conquer.

“Are you ready to suffer?” Tyler and I laugh as Dean Karnazes – ultrarunning legend and MC for the race – poses this question to the runners. He asked the same question last year. At the time it sent a shiver of fear down my spine. This year is different, though. This year we’re calm and collected. We’ve done this race before and we’re going to crush it.

Go time!

Miles 0-4: The temperature is perfect, and we’re feeling awesome. Our pace is exactly where we want it to be, and our energy levels are solid. The only slight hiccup is the mud. At first we try to dance around it to keep our feet dry, but after a while we realize that it’s futile. I swear the mud must be 6 inches deep in places.

Dean describes this as “a special kind of mud.” I immediately know what he’s talking about. It’s so sticky that I find myself wrenching my sneakers up and out of it with every step.


Mile 5: Disaster. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a Charley Horse in my leg, but I’ve never, ever gotten one during a run. We’re heading down the first big hill at a nice, quick clip, and my quadriceps seize up as if a tiny monster has decided to reach through my skin and grab my muscles, squeezing and twisting them as hard as he can.

Photo by Ultra Race Photos

“I can’t believe this…I just can’t believe this.” This was supposed to be our big moment. We were going to beat our previous time and cruise through the entire course, enjoying the scenery and feeling amazing the entire time. Our biggest worry was supposed to be what we wanted to have for lunch after the race! I wasn’t supposed to be cramping up to a near-incapacitated state, especially not with an entire marathon distance left to go.

The next 26 miles were a blur of pain, self-pity, and sheer grit (and maybe a few tears and four-letter words). It occurred to me that this is probably what it would feel like if the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz did a trail run.

The pain would start to subside, and my stiff walk would transform first into a shuffle, then gradually something closer to a run. Then we’d hit another hill and my thighs would hurl into another set of spasms. Pain, shuffling, running, pain, shuffling, running…it was an endless cycle. It crushed me that I was slowing us down when I knew Tyler could go so much faster.

At no point did the pain go away. What did happen was this: I just kept going anyway. Along the way, endless runners asked if I was okay and if I needed help. They offered electrolytes and shared words of encouragement. One runner even stuck with us for a few miles, sharing his best tips for alleviating cramps.

At one point we heard a familiar voice coming up behind us. “Hey guys! It’s Dean!” It was the always-in-motion figure of Dean Karnazes, who had decided to run the 50K course to cheer on the runners and work at a few aid stations along the way (because it’s Dean!).

“Pickle juice. You need pickle juice,” Dean said enthusiastically. (Apparently many runners swear by pickle juice as an effective remedy for leg cramps.) He even asked the volunteers at the next aid station if they had any.

There was no pickle juice in sight, but I’ll never forget how kind and helpful Dean and the other runners were throughout the race. It didn’t matter that we were technically competing against one another. We were all there to do our best, and to encourage others to do the same.

Amazingly, we still improved our race time and final ranking over the previous year’s race despite the unexpected challenges. I also came away from the race knowing that just about any obstacle can be overcome by putting one foot in front of the other. This gives me hope for future races where the going might be harder and the pain might even be worse. Next time I might have 50 miles left to go when this happens instead of 26, but I’ll be better prepared to let it hurt and keep going anyway.

During our 6 hours and 11 minutes on the race course, here are a few key lessons I learned:

Sometimes even the best laid plans don’t turn out the way you hope. If things go south, don’t beat yourself up about it. Accept the challenge and keep chugging along.
People can be really awesome. Who knows if I would have made it to the finish line without the encouragement of Tyler, Dean, and so many others? If you’re ever down, lean on friends and loved ones to bring you back up. And don’t forget to return the favor!
We’re all capable of a lot; more, in fact, than many of us will ever realize. Your mind and your heart are stronger than your body, so if your body ever fails you, dig deep and let the strength of your spirit finish the job for you.

Photo by Ultra Race Photos