Monday morning I woke up at 2:47 am and it wasn’t just that my eyes opened, I was awake! The brain and what you can train it to expect and accept is limitless. It’s that we accept the limits we have already accepted and expect as truth instead of what they are: conditioning. Over the weekend, I participated in David Goggins 4x4x48 Challenge and as I heard from the raw-truth speaker himself, we were learning and experiencing mental toughening. In Goggins lexicon, that essentially means we can tolerate pushing ourselves further even when it’s been uncomfortable for an extended period of time, and we can see how often we are our own limiters. This is best encapsulated in his 40% rule: “When your mind is telling you you’re done, you’re really only 40 percent done.”
If you aren’t sure what this challenge was all about, essentially it was running/walking 4 miles, every 4 hours for 48 hours. (You can also read about Lowi’s take on it here) For those of us on the East Coast, that meant beginning at 11 pm ET and starting our final 4-mile segment at 7 pm ET on Sunday. I woke up at 2:47 am on Monday morning because for the previous two days my alarm had gone off at 2:45 am to ensure I was on the treadmill for my 3 am allotment of 4 miles. Like anything else, it got stuck in my brain because I mixed it with adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones that get the brain to take notice that this experience matters.
We can teach ourselves anything if we are willing and this past weekend was a lesson in mental fortitude. I have physically worked harder, covered more miles and in even less time. I had never continued to navigate such an experience with such little sleep at any given time. The most sleep I ever had at any one time was 90 minutes and oftentimes it was far less. The feeling you have after sleeping 3 hours straight is far different from sleeping for 90 minutes, getting up and running/walking for 4 miles, winding back down and going back to bed for, if you are lucky, another 90 minutes.
Like snow, accumulation matters.
Accumulating larger amounts of sleep has an effect on the body and the mind. The inverse is true, going large periods of time without sleep has an effect on the body and the mind. But mostly, the mind. I imagine that my mind is where motivation, perseverance, determination and commitment live. I am not sure if that’s true but it feels true. I say that because physically, the demand wasn’t out of my wheelhouse. Mentally, due to the lack of sleep, it was more than “just a bit outside” my Venn diagram of comfort. Competing in a 24-hour event is one thing, participating in a 47-hour event that allows you to make your own micro-schedule within the race is yet another, staying awake for an additional 24 is something that intensifies, like snow, by a magnitude.
In a word it was unrelenting.
While there were physical breaks, as I never covered more than 4 miles at a time, mentally it was relentless. I was anticipating the next interval. I was planning what I could/would eat, I was attempting to rest and trust my alarm would wake me up. In many ways it felt like the never-ending task that encompassed nearly all my headspace. Unlike a traditional ultra where you are in it, and primarily participating every minute, you don’t have the thoughts about getting motivated to go again (because you never stop), you don’t have to worry about your alarm (because you never stop), and you have the opportunity play off your strengths, when you feel good you ride the wave, when things are rough you can adjust and make up for the low patch later.
The infrastructure of this challenge asks you: can you stay within the walls of this dynamic even when it hurts, even when it stops being fun, even when you just want it to be over? This doesn’t allow you to play to your strengths. It forces you, at least it forced me, to lean into my weakness and see if they could get closer to being strengths. Instead of moving away from the difficult parts, I had to get closer. When I was feeling really good and my energy was high, I still had to stop after 4 miles. When I was feeling low I couldn’t opt to rest for another 20 minutes.
Ultimately, what you learn is that more often than not, you CAN go on even when your mind has contradictory thoughts. You can continue when it feels miserable. You can go on even when you are tired.
One of the perspectives I set for myself before this adventure began was to let the experience be what it is. Stop needing it to be different than it is. So much of our suffering in ultras, and in life, is that we want the experience to be different than it is. We will not accept it as it is. There are plenty of circumstances where that is appropriate. In many instances in life, however, there is something to be said for acceptance (which is not the same as resignation). “Transformation begins with the very radical acceptance of what is,” according to Danielle LaPorte and I believe there is wisdom in that. When we stop wasting our energy fighting against the moment, we can use that energy to overcome the moment. It’s similar to when I read about learning to relax your face while you run, even when it’s hard, because you are not running the hill or the course with your face. Why waste that energy in an unproductive place?
Ultimately, this is what, at least so far, I think I learned in this experience. Take it as it comes and to a large extent it doesn’t matter how you feel about it, if it’s what you would have chosen, the question is can you endure the moment to get to the finish line, to the goal? In this particular experience, the answer was yes, yes I can. On many other days, the answer was, no. No, I cannot.
It has me wondering on the days that I failed to make it to the goal, was it just because I hadn’t learned yet where to keep my focus? I have heard Lazarus Lake, of the infamous Barkley Marathons, talk about running in ways that are so resonant when you read them and yet up till the point you read it, these realities missed your conscious awareness. One of which is that when we train for long distances we anticipate, plan for the hurt that comes at miles 45 or 50; miles 70 or 80. We don’t pay attention, not really, to the discomfort that shows up in mile 4. It’s often there, even in our training, but we don’t give it our focus because we are attending to the distance of the day. Can I make it to 20 miles, or 15 or 35? But on race day when the niggles and the twinges arrive at mile 5 and you are in it for the long haul you panic for a moment. You tell yourself it’s too soon to feel like this. Is it too soon or you just didn’t, as Laz says, mentally prepare for this?
We cannot plan for every eventuality and as we all know, attempting to will make us nuts. But if we can begin to offer ourselves guidance such as these quotes I have heard (or said) through the years, we can see it differently.
“However this goes for me is OK.” (Nicole Sachs)
“This is how it feels to accomplish 100 miles. If you want 100 miles this is what it feels like today.” (me)
It’s not about liking or even judging, it’s about accepting this is the moment I am having.
If I can accept it I can move through it. If I won’t accept it, I make it my enemy. I am doing battle with reality; that is insanity.
What did I learn from 4x4x48? My mind wants to make the truth of the moment the enemy. When sometimes the enemy is believing everything I think. I thought that running at 3 am would be miserable. It was sometimes, other times it felt like such a high that I was overcoming this hurdle I was nearly sure would break me. There were times when I really didn’t want to run so I tested if I could tolerate it. I ran to the next telephone pole or mailbox and I proved myself wrong. I could do it.
Life is an experiment. Be a scientist, prove yourself wrong!
Sunshine & Sarcasm,
Lowi & G