January 10, 2007

Mind, Body & Sanka

The training season doesn't start with a whimper or a grumble. It doesn't even start with a shriek, shout or caterwaul. It just starts.

One day you're sitting at the Christmas table trying to shove that last piece of pumpkin pie down your face to fill the one remaining air pocket in your stomach, and the next day you're waking up before the sun even thinks of rising so you can squeeze in a 7 mile run and 2500 meter swim before most normal people flick on the switch of their coffee percolator.

Assuming there are people out there who still percolate. Which in this day and age is probably doubtful.

In fact, there is nothing percolatory about the beginning of the training season at all. There is no gradual permeation. No passing slowly or seeping through. Sticking with this horrendous coffee metaphor, I'd have to say that the start of the training season is nothing at all like Sanka. If anything, its more like espresso. Quick, fast, and a heckuva wake up call.

Having been sick for a fair part of the holiday season, I didn't do much working out. Basically none. I think I may have run 5 times in the past two months. That's what we call "none" in the triathlon world.

But, ahoy, in comes January and there's no time to look back - it's a brand new training season! So I do what I do during every training season: I wake up in the morning and look at my schedule. Lookee here, Sparky, its the first week of January and I'm supposed to squeeze out a 70 minute run. Oh goody.

A normal person would pshaw or maybe even harrumph at the mere suggestion of this workout. Seventy minutes?! they'd say in their most rude and sarcastic tone. Let's try seven minutes and work up from there.

But not me. I'm not a normal person.

Me... well, I look at that workout and think, Hmmm, that doesn't sound too bad. Then I shove my over-squished tuchus into my dusty running shorts, lace up my shoes and waddle out the door.

And somewhere around minute 40 of this refreshing, albeit slow, hour long jaunt (I cut it 10 minutes short - at least I'm sane enough to do that), I started thinking about the power of the mind.

There's a book called "Body, Mind & Sport" that I've read twice and really want to quote here. But I can't think of any quotes from it so let's pretend I just said something really profound. Wow, you may even be saying to your computer screen. That's one profound mofo.

The truth is, as you can tell from my non-existent but overwhelmingly profound quote above, the tremendous connection between the mind and the body is a huge asset in the world of sports. And it is one of the most important assets in long-distance triathlon. As you're out there struggling, tired beyond belief, ready to pass out at the next step, oftentimes the only thing driving you forward is your mind. When that goes, you're toast.

This is a good thing for me, because physically I am more on the Olive Oyl side of the fence than the Popeye side. I'm not winning any strength contests. However, I'd put my will-power and mental strength with Stephen Hawking as opposed to, say, Rainman. (Though I am an excellent driver). I sometimes feel like my only advantage in the sport of triathlon is that pain actually makes me stronger. I'm crazy like that.

I built up my mental stamina back in my idiotic early running days where every workout was a speed and distance fest. I'd run until the pain was too intense, then I'd turn around and run home even faster. It was tough but it was also incredibly exhilirating.

Fast forward a decade or so and here I am racing long-distance triathlon. Over the past few years it's been either half-Ironman or Ironman distance as the key races. Preparing for those events requires a fair bit of training time. Yet no matter how extensive you train, you'll still most likely push yourself to your physical limits on race day. Nobody ever said it got any easier. It just becomes a test of your mental limits.

I suppose in that way it's a little bit like torture. When all physicality has gone by the wayside, all we've got are our thoughts to keep us alive.

So anyway, back to my 60 minute run as the first workout of the year. Around about 40 minutes into it I realized that my body felt good and that I could probably go on for awhile. I also realized that had I started the day by fearing this workout and convincing myself that I wouldn't be able to do it - well, I probably would've lived up to that expectation. But with a few solid years of long-distance triathlon training under my belt, I've become used to pushing the limits of the mind power.

"I can do it" has turned into a fine mantra. "Don't quit" seems to work just as well. "Just do it" is a little cliche at this point, but still has its moments. "Go," though incredibly simple, has always been one of my favorites.

It's so fascinating how a few simple words can stoke the fires of the mind and help overcome slight physical discomfort.

Don't get me wrong, I definitely try to listen to my body. But there comes a point when you need to realize if the body is just whining and moaning and being a big baby, or if it actually has something important to say. If there is one thing I learned from my past year of Ironman training, it is that my body can be the biggest complainer around. My body has been the boy who cried wolf far too many times. In response, my mind has learned to be the fearful gym teacher that yells at the boy. Stop crying you little wuss! Go! GO!! And though the sad, pathetic little boy may begin to despise the powerful gym teacher - we all know he's going to have a lot of respect for him later in life.

You see, mediocrity is easy. It doesn't take a miracle to stand still but it takes a mind of steel to keep moving forward.

So as another training season ramps up, we wave goodbye to mediocrity as it fades away into our rearview mirror. What lies before us is a bright - and sometimes painful - future filled to the brim with opportunity.

Which reminds me of a quote (finally, an actual quote!): Every cell in my body would love to settle for the simplicity of mediocrity and status quo. It's the easy way, the painless way. But status quo isn't where growth takes place. And status quo isn't where dreams come true.

As for me, I've got a few really big dreams.

Keep on tri-ing.


stronger said...

I found the other profound quote!

"...When all physicality has gone by the wayside, all we've got is our thoughts to keep us alive."

j. said...

Lookee there... who knew.
Good spotting, Stronger.

Anonymous said...

Great post, J. I know a lot of people think that for athletes it all gets easier, and that's not really true. It's still hard, and we push ourselves even harder, but when it comes down to it we really just do go out and do it, even when it hurts.

You might be interested in the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, by the way. It talks a lot about how people (athletes included) get themselves into a state of mental Flow. Very interesting stuff.

Anonymous said...

And the mind continues to be the toughest, most important muscle to train.

Thanks for another great, thoughtful post.

Anonymous said...

You leave me with a lot for contemplation and a good chuckle under my breath :-) I have had to confront myself from time to time during a workout to ask if I really have a physical obstacle or is it just a little in my mind. I am sometimes caught off guard by the answer.

Thanks for the book reference. Always looking for the next good read. I find your perspective on mediocrity right on target.

Enjoyed browsing your blog. ~j

triathlonmom said...

another great post

Susan Oseen said...

It's funny how we think the beginning weeks are not that bad. I think part of it is due to the fact that we all know whats ahead as far as Ironman training goes. As long as we keep saying to ourselves..."don't quit" "just do it"...we'll all be ok.