Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pain, emotions, blah, blah, blah

My first Ironman in 96' is still very vivid in my memory. I remember reading beforehand that an IM is a test of mental strength and fortitude, one that forces you into deep, dark places of your mind. That it'll become a huge metaphor for how you deal with life. I remember thinking "puhleeze! Give me a break. Sure it's a tough event, but it's just that, an event." Of course I was a naive, cocky young bastard back then. Now I'm not so naive and not so young. During the race, the swim was not bad, the bike was challenging for sure, but I felt pretty good. Then, the marathon. I felt like crap right from the beginning and then my stomach started to go south. It was close to 100 degrees and humid, and I still had 22 miles to run. Doubt started to creep in, and the pain started to become immense. My emotions were getting the best of me. I was going through the self sympathy mentally, with the devil on one shoulder doing her best to convince me to "just stop and end the pain!" Every step hurt like hell and I told myself 10K in, 12K in, 15K in, ... that I would never do another IM. I couldn't wait to finish and I did whatever I could to mask the thoughts in my mind. I did whatever I possibly could to make that pain disappear for even a minute. I was definitely in that deep, dark mental place that forces you to show what your made of. 5K to go and it still seemed like forever, yet in 3 miles I'd be done and never, ever do this stupid event again. Every step sent pain through my aching quads. The blisters were so bad that I had to run on the outer edges of both feet. My stomach was gnarly and not absorbing any nutrition or fluids I was forcing in. And my head was about to explode from the pressure of the sun beating down on me. Then, the last 1/2 mile came. Everything disappeared. I didn't want the race to end. The emotions did a 180, as well as the pain, and I was on cloud 9. I had to somehow get back to this event! I couldn't wait to start my training to qualify again for 97'.

So I rode that cloud for awhile and then qualified to compete in my second Hawaii the following year in 97'. The problem is that as the race got closer, I was scared. The pain and negative emotions of 96' were prevalent in my conscious, and I couldn't escape them. The thought of putting myself through this pain again was anything but pleasant. To deal with these negetive emotions, I would divert. I would focus more on the last 1/2 mile of the race and on the excitement of traveling back to this great Island. This, for the most part, worked, and I had a solid race in what were some extremely extreme conditions even for this race. (1997 and 2004 were the worst two years weather wise on race day in Hawaii).

As I've matured, I've learned that pain is best handled by not diverting or masking, but by rather tackling it head on. I was raised a catholic however I'm not very religous. But I do believe in this buddhist trait. Buddhism accepts and perhaps even proclaims the fact that life inevitably involves and requires suffering. This, however, is merely the first step. Only after we accept and take this step which is truly accepting the reality that life does and must contain pain, suffering and loss – can we hope to transcend it. One might indeed ask whether a life without an awareness , recognition, and a “respect” for suffering can be anything but a rather empty and shallow existence. Can we really connect to the suffering of others if we have not suffered ourselves? Perhaps we should not be afraid to suffer but welcome each opportunity as a means of deepening our consciousness and our real connection to others. No, I'm not becoming a Buddhist! I have learned that by dealing with pain instead of masking it, I have grown.

On a smaller scale, Many of us "overthink" our training sometimes, and let it de-motivate or get the best of us. I have many clients that will justify missing training. It's easy to talk yourself out of something. During these moments, stop thinking about it, change your clothes, begin the training session and focus on the process - the biomechanics, the simpleness. Before you know it, the session is almost done and the impending guilt of missing a training session or justifying to yourself why you missed it is irrelevant. The same with racing. What are your true fears in a race? Deal with them head on and the race will be all that more fulfilling. I'm not saying that if the swim terrifies you, line up front and center at the next mass start race. But be smart, seed yourself accordingly, and focus on the process. Talking yourself out of racing can happen easily. Facing the challenge head on is where the reward and growth comes in.

Hope some of this kind of makes sense. Because if it does, this thinking opens up the door for huge gains in ability and growth.




alan said...

Thanks for this, EH. It really tracks with how I was feeling yesterday just before I hopped on the bike.

It would be great if we never felt any pain or discomfort in races and as I get older, sometimes while I'm racing I start thinking that it didn't used to seem to be so uncomfortable. But that's wishful thinking. Racing and hard training hurts and it always has- while you're doing it.

But the rewards are pretty sweet...

Trihardist said...

Yeah, excellent.

I wouldn't consider myself particularly religious either (used to be, perhaps to a fault), but I would say catholicism/christianity shares that same trait. Any religion whose main icon is a graphic display of a brutal death has to have a pretty good handle on suffering.

And for that reason, I would say that all athletes (but especially endurance/ultra athletes) are pretty in-tune spiritually. We are obligated (at least if we want to do well) to willingly embrace and engage suffering. Because like alan says, racing and training don't hurt less as you progress; they hurt the same amount. You just go faster.

Eric said...

Thanks for the comments you two!

triguyjt said...

ist of all props on your anniversary!!!

I think a single part of a single sentence hit home for me and I hope this kind of sums up your post...if whoops

"life does and must contain pain, suffering and loss – can we hope to transcend it."

EH people all over the world focus on the pain of everything and that overwhelms them. As you tackle it head on and you transcend become get past it....and you never forget it...
"it" makes you stronger...

Have a great day

Eric said...

Right on JT.