The time I have spent recovering from RR100 race has really been a turning point for me, how I look at myself, how and running fits in my world.  Prior to that, I had never actually quit in a race.  At the Greenland 50k 2011, I seriously considered it, but not like this.  I had never actually verbalized, ‘I Quit’.  At mile 83, I sat down and refused to keep going.  In my head it made complete sense at that moment.  I had no chance of making my time goal, or, probably even a PR.  I was experiencing physical sensations that were outside of anything I had felt at a race up to that point, and I had run completely out of the two things I had in all of my previous races; Hope, and Determination.  Why did this happen?  Moreover, what drove me to eventually stand back up, and start moving again?  After the race ended, and I had the buckle in my hand, I knew that if I could figure that out, I would have a serious leg up in future races…

So, lets start with what lead me to what I will simply refer to as “The Moment” at mile 83.  It actually started on the day I finished my previous 100 mile race, in Fountain Hills, Az.  I had promised myself a month long recovery period between JJ100 and RR100, the night after the race it hit me, that couldn’t happen.  RR100 was only 3 months away and The Houston Marathon, only 2.5 months off.  After running a total of 6 ultra’s and 2 marathon distance races in 9 month’s I was suddenly overwhelmed.  There would be no time for a real recovery this time around.  I had been counting on that to keep me going through my JJ100 training, and that realization in many ways crushed me.  I then carried that into training.

I am not going to rehash what happened once I crossed that start line and mile 83 since I think I covered that thoroughly in my race report.  That being said, things did not improve mentally.  Ironically, I was doing better with nutrition than I had at JJ100, or RR100 the year before.   My crew was there for me without fail, and with a level of enthusiasm that was incredible.  So, if my mind wasn’t in the game, but I was doing everything else really well, why did I fall apart?  Why couldn’t my body force me to keep moving as I approached Mile 83?  Bigger, what changed in the time I was at NatureCenter?  This was not my first rodeo, I was physically capable of finishing the race, and I knew that.

This gets us to the “How”.  The mental game of the race, of the distance, of what has to happen to overcome that Ft.Knox style solid steel, guarded by 1000 fully automatic weapon, body armored soldier wall I encountered at mile 83.  I know I am not the only person who hit that particularly high wall at this race, or at any ultra for that matter.  It’s actually a fairly common occurrence.  So, how does it happen and what got me, at least, past it this time?

In short: it was all in my head… and while I knew that on a certain level, what I didn’t know was that maybe the mind body connection here was even stronger than I had realized at first.  Ever since my first successful ultra finish in 2011, I have known this was a mind game.  But I never connected that may go significantly farther than just being able to ignore pain signals, but maybe even the pain signals themselves were a product of my brain itself, rather than the muscles that were experiencing the ‘pain’.

I am differentiating the ‘mind’ and the ‘brain’ for purposes of this discussion.  For the purposes of this post, the brain is the organic structure that is pure programming, and is subject to involuntary reflexes and impulses, whereas the mind is the ability to over-ride and control our basic instincts and impulses.  In other words, the voluntary aspects of cognition are the realm of the ‘mind’ (ok, ok, I know all of this happens within the organic structure of the brain, but humor me for a second here so I can keep my nonsensical rambling going) 

Since the race, I have spent a lot of time focused on how I control my mind, and what get’s in the way.  I have gone to quite a few yoga classes, I have done a lot of introspection, and talking to friends, and my girlfriend, and then one of my friends, Becky Williams (no relation) posted a link to a National Public Radio story about limits both physical, and mental.  It was great, and presented a lot of interesting ideas for me to mull over.  If you want to listen to it here is (wordpress won’t let me embed it because its not from one of the ‘white listed sites’:

http://www.radiolab.org/2010/apr/05/limits-of-the-body/?utm_source=sharedUrl&utm_media=metatag&utm_campaign=sharedUrl

If you don’t have at least 30 minutes to get through the part where they are talking about the idea of physical limits, here is the basic idea.  We all have a process in our brains that is called the “Central Governor”.  If this is accurate, it acts like a regulator, which tells us that we cannot, and should not continue.  Mainly, this looks like extreme fatigue, and different types of pain.  So, in theory, all you have to do is fix how this is working, and you can keep going… but how do you fix it?

If the theory, and the research the story cites is accurate, than you can trick that nasty, bitter and angry process in your brain by providing it with sugar that will make it think there is more energy incoming (I am also going to toss in that if this were a man, it would be a very short, squat, and ugly old man with hair shooting out of his nose and ears while sporting a a hunchback and a cane).  Doing this, allegedly causes the Central Governon to release energy it otherwise hides from us.  But outside of that, maybe a big part of what you are doing with your mind, is overcoming that particular process, all on your own, without the external stimuli.  As they talk about in the story, you can possibly create a situation where you trick it; hence what our pacers do, what we do to ourselves with music, or self talk (I know more than once in races I have started singing out loud to my music or I will start telling myself that whatever hurts is not real).  I did none of this at Rocky Raccoon this year prior to The Moment.  Why?

The reality was, by the time I started the race, I put my body in a position where it went to that place of exhaustion right away.  The angry old man was screaming at me and sometimes hitting me in the face with his cane on nearly every training run.  Then, because I had run the race before, and didn’t particularly feel like I had anything to prove, I just didn’t have the drive that I needed to not just fight those sensations, especially with the added difficulty of a 24 hour time.  Regardless, I think the moral of the story is, there is such a thing as too much racing, at least for me.  When a full time job, girlfriend, and friends all enter the mix, without some down time its just not possible to let your body build back up its reserves without REALLY recovering after an ultra.  If you do this your angry bitter old man goes to sleep and leaves you alone.  If you don’t, he will doze off periodically, but anytime you really push, he wakes back up and starts beating you in the face again, and again, and again…

Once I sat down at mile 83, the angry old man living in my brain had all but beaten me into submission.  So why would I be able to stand back up and go again, finishing that last 17 miles?  Well, my best guess is, sitting down, being given food that my body recognized as good stuff that it wanted was a big part.  Aside from that, my crew, pacer, and the volunteer of the year, Bob, had time to trick my brain into believing that whether I wanted to go or not, I had no other choice.

The key thought that was going through my mind as I approached “The Moment” was my fixation on the 6 mile loop on the far end of the park.  They addressed that, convincing me it wasn’t going to be so terrible.  Then once I was going, my mind was eventually able to survive by refusing to even think about how long I had to keep going.  It was able to focus on the impermanence of the pain I was experiencing and my pacer was even able to help me frame this all as not just irrelevant to my situation, but actually as a beneficial experience.

The only times I struggled once I was able to do this with the help of my pacer was once the finish was in my face, and my brain and mind knew finishing was imminent.  So, it seems to me that at the end of the day, after we have trained our bodies to where they need to be, or can be, it really does come down to what’s in our minds.  Because, if that’s strong enough, our mind can beat the grumpy old man living in our brain’s down with a spiked mace and leave him dead in a gutter somewhere along the course…

What are other people’s thoughts on this?  I know there are opposing theories on how and why this happens…

*note: no old men where hurt in the writing of this post, and the author does not, in any way condone elderly abuse, unless it’s the old guy living in your brain…*

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