Mindfulness at an Ultra, Even When You Don’t Want It

tussey_finishThis year I slated three races to run. The first was a 25K trail run I knew I wasn’t fully prepared for. The next was a trail marathon I used as a practice run. The third was my “A” race, the one at which I wanted to perform well and go for the best time I could over 50 miles. I cramped up at the first race which I attributed to lack of preparation. It was frustrating, but not demoralizing. The second race was healthy and enjoyable mainly because I wasn’t going all that hard. But the last race? That “A” race I had in my sights all year? I cramped up the worst and way earlier that I would ever have expected. I sucked down all the electrolytes and was well hydrated, I wasn’t going all that much faster than my final training run, and I had a 3 week taper leading into it. I had also trained my ass off and followed a program I put together based on plans recommended by more than one coach. Yet I still lost my legs at mile 22 and they never came back. That meant 28 miles of often excruciating pain that made power hiking up even modest climbs difficult and unforgiving. But I’m not here to talk about my body. I’m here to talk about what was happening in my brain.

Managing Self Talk

Anyone who has worked through a mental illness will tell you that self-talk and personal narratives dictate how they feel, what they believe about themselves, and how they behave. The messages from past experiences and internal traumas that loudly whisper, “You aren’t worth this,” “You should stop,” “Who are you to even try,” “You’re so selfish,” “Just give up, that’s what people would expect anyway” never fully go away no matter how healthy you get. The trick is to form a different relationship with those messages so they stop dictating your feelings, beliefs, and behavior. This takes practice and hard work over a long period of time like training the body to endure running for long distances. When the body is healthy and everything seems to feel good and highly functioning, dispelling those messages with affirmations, completing even mundane goals, or bodily movement is at its easiest. But when the body starts to fatigue and pain is inescapable all those practices you have developed to counteract the narratives of depression or anxiety in all of its forms begin to lose their effectiveness. Without those practices, your thoughts are left bare. What then?

Mindfulness has become a Westernized panacea that is as ubiquitous as diets promising you that you can lose weight fast and look like a fitness model in two weeks, or get rich schemes from televangelists promising magic from “miracle” spring water from Russia. Most of the popular mentions of mindfulness are divorced from its roots in meditation practices from Buddhists and romanticize the image of the happy guru blissful in his chubby transcendence. Mindfulness to the popular imagination is more like achieving the state of a happy dog that lives its life in a series of present moments ecstatic to see people, play ball, and sneak scraps from the table. This image of mindfulness misses the mark not only for what it is and how hard it is to practice and to achieve a level of competence doing.

Mindfulness is about understanding the cycle of cause and effect that people are caught in so that we can better understand how to break and change those cycles in which we find ourselves in order to live lives at greater peace with ourselves and with others.

Mindfulness is indeed becoming deeply familiar and intimate with the present. It is a practice that gets you much closer to and curious about everything happening inside the body and outside of it. It is feeling the shirt on your skin, hearing the ringing in your ears you usually don’t notice, listening to the voice that tells you how horrible you are, and leaning in to all of the things that go through your brain of which you are most often completely unaware. Mindfulness is about understanding the cycle of cause and effect that people are caught in so that we can better understand how to break and change those cycles in which we find ourselves in order to live lives at greater peace with ourselves and with others. If you stop everything and become aware of everything going through your brain and everything that you sense in your body, it is overwhelming. Close your eyes and give it a try right now for 30 seconds. There is a lot happening isn’t there? Just like going for a run when you are out of shape is difficult and takes time and consistent effort for your body to adapt, the practice of mindful meditation should be done by setting small goals and adapting over time to where you are able to manage your mind more effectively.

Flipping the Script

So what does this have to do with running an ultramarathon? Mile 30 was the last time I would see any of the runners in the pack I had been in until the finish. Except for relay runners passing me and support vehicles speeding by, I was totally alone with my pain and my thoughts. I am not a meditator. I tried it for a while, but I did not want to get intimate with my thoughts at all. At the time, life was a mess and the idea of making that mess more present and clear was awful. Why would I want to make bad stuff feel worse? I have done work since then to understand my brain, how my thinking works, and how it affects my behavior. But I have not exactly practiced mindfulness at least to the degree that a Buddhist monk would ever have me do. So when my body that I thought I had trained went south, I was left with an untrained brain to work through the mess of thoughts that I simply could not avoid.

As every negative comment ever slung at me going back to when I was probably eight years old raging in my brain, a woman from a relay team pulled up next to me. She said, “I have been trying to catch up to you for a half an hour! You are so strong! You are doing this! You’re strong!” She said it over and over again. I told her I was OK, that I was just working through bad cramps, and that there was nothing I could eat or drink right now that would help. We got to the top of the hill and I said, “I think I can run down this now.” She fell behind me. I never saw her again. I still have no idea who it was. But those words were just enough to feed my brain with something different and positive enough to flip the script a little. It also reminded me to keep practicing gratitude. If I saw someone else struggling, I offered encouragement. I thanked everyone at the aid stations and smiled for them because they had been working for us all day. The best solution to the problems inside my head was to get outside of my head.

But those words were just enough to feed my brain with something different and positive enough to flip the script a little. It also reminded me to keep practicing gratitude. If I saw someone else struggling, I offered encouragement. I thanked everyone at the aid stations and smiled for them because they had been working for us all day. The best solution to the problems inside my head was to get outside of my head.

The first step in mindfulness practice is to accept the thoughts and sensations you are experiencing. The second step is to accept that they are temporary and you are free to let them go whenever you want. The third step is to understand that the longer you hold on to those thoughts and sensations, the greater the risk is that you are going to cause yourself or others to suffer at some point. Sometimes you just need a little push from the outside to let those things go and that comes from either receiving help from others or offering help in any way that you can manage. That’s when the content of your brain starts to change just enough that perceptions and experience slowly and gradually transform.

So what did this race teach me? I not only need to strengthen my body a little bit more, I need to strengthen my brain. Two hypotheses I am going to test for next year: 1) Strengthen the muscles in the hips and knees to get better balance and increased resistance to fatigue; 2) start meditating with a true beginner’s mind and not for some deeper, spiritual purpose, but for stronger and more resilient processing of whatever is happening so I can more effectively let it go.

From Couch to Marathon

Pittsburgh Marathon RouteWhen I started my running journey last year, there was absolutely no way that anyone could have convinced me that I was going to run a marathon within the next 10 months. I was barely able to put together 3 miles last May and that was with walking. But I kept running. On May 1 not only did I finish my first marathon, but I did it on a challenging course and comfortably under 4 hours. I did this with no athletic experience other than 25% of a wrestling season before I quit. Nor was I ever a runner before July of 2015. I gave it a shot back in 1997 for a maybe three runs and stopped. I did the same pattern in April of last year. But something clicked in July and I stuck with it. Now I am in it for the long haul.

So what did I learn while training for a race I did not think I had any business running just a few months ago? What did I do right and what mistakes did I make? I look at life like a big science experiment. One of the most difficult problems in educational research is that there are so many variables that condition what happens in the teaching and learning process. Gender, socio-economic background, race, family systems, mental illness, personality, and many others are all somewhere in the background affecting things we think are simple to measure. Running is no different. There are dozens of general guidelines, but until you get out there, make some mistakes, identify the causes of problems spots, and then change the variables, you will never make progress. So you want to run your first marathon this year? Here are a few things you might want to think about.

Check Your Shoes When I started, I ran in old-ass shoes because that’s what I had and they were decent enough. When I started to realize I would be doing this as a weekly habit, I switched up to shiny new pair of Asics Gel Cumulus. I thought I had arrived. Until the blisters and shin pain settled in. It took me a few months to accept that I might have the wrong shoes on my feet. Just because a shoe gets rave reviews and costs in excess of 120 bucks does not mean it’s a good shoe for you. One afternoon I stopped in my local running store to get fitted. He watched my gait and told me right off that the shoe I was wearing was not right for my overpronating ways. He put me in a different shoe and I have been golden ever since. It’s not the brand or the prettiness of the shoe, it’s the kind of shoe that fits not just my feet, but my natural cadence. Now I alternate between Asics GT-2000 and Asics Gel Kayano. So get fitted, or get injured.

Find Your Own Groove No matter how many articles, videos, and conversations you consume about proper form, the best roller to use on your sore legs, stretching, strength exercises, mileage, interval training, hills, and nutrition, you have to go out and try on everything until you find what works for you. I tried as much as I could and only after finishing that grandaddy race, do I think I know what works for me. Give yourself freedom and time to make mistakes, but always get back up and run it out as soon as you can. That perseverance is what got me to the finish line.

Form Matters When I did not pay attention to form, I got tibialis anterior tendinosis (like shin splints, but so so much worse), back pain, ITB syndrome, and runner’s knee. Once I shortened my stride by increasing cadence, and paid close attention to my posture while running, all of those problems went away. But they were replaced by others. My hips got really tight and then my back stated to spasm. Everything is related. If you have a sore spot in one place, your body will adapt to it by using other muscle groups and will do so often in ways that those other muscle groups aren’t used to functioning leading to other injuries. If you feel pain, stop, figure out what you’re doing wrong, solve that issue, and then get back out there. Ignoring it will eventually put you on the couch for a few weeks and that will totally mess you up. The solution for me was stretching and using a good foam roller after my runs. But I can do better. If I add more cross training to strengthen my hips and core, I will do myself a world of service. Even though I was doing a lot of pushups every week, I can still do a bit more.

Build Mileage and Be Patient As a new runner, I wanted to get fast and far almost as a way to “get caught up” for lost time. That, more than anything, is probably why I kept hurting myself. Starting to run at age 41 means my body was clueless as to the stresses I was about to put it through. So it rebelled. At mile 22 as I was starting down the hill from East Liberty to the Central Business District of Pittsburgh, I started to cramp hard. It was awful. My quads and hamstrings spasmed and the pain was almost unbearable. Walking and stopping only made it worse. The good news is that I ran through it and crossed the finish line running. That was the goal. The bad news is that it happened. I was hydrated, had eaten three Clif Shot gels with water, and had had a solid taper and carb loading the week before. I cramped because I did not run enough during my training. Because of flu (twice), that back pain, and tight hips, I had to take some 20 days off from the training plan. This meant I had to do a little catch up which every trainer will tell you is a bad idea. However, had I not pushed through some longer runs shortly before the race, I would not have made it. The lesson is that I need to have a more solid foundation of running consistently and that takes time. The general wisdom is to increase no more than about 10-15% each week and for the longest run of the week to be no more than 35% of the total. I did not follow that rule, and I cramped up! This takes time and patience. It means that by the time you hit your first 20 miler during a training sequence, you should have worked yourself up to and adapted to a 50-60 mile week. That’s a lot of miles and a lot of time. A 12 week plan was not enough for my first marathon. I needed at least 16. More ideal would have been an 18 week plan. Beyond that, I am out of range for most of the published plans like Higdon’s or Galloway’s.

Watch Your Protein and Carb Intake I was a good boy with my carb to fat ratio, got my vegetables, and was mostly plant powered for my entire training sequence. I never bonked, rarely cramped, and had the longest stretch of injury-free health in my fledgling life as a runner. And for energy drinks while on the run, Tailwind is the shit. But I also overtrained, ran through a lot of soreness and fatigue, and got sick right after my 20 mile long run. OK…fatigue, soreness and sickness may have come anyway, but was there something I could have done better to help prevent all of those things? Yes! I was good with my vitamins, but missed the part where as my mileage increased, by immunity system would get compromised. That’s when I started taking an extra vitamin C  supplement which I will keep doing. The other part is that because I did not have a gradual enough mileage increase and my training was anything but consistent, even though I was technically under-trained, I put too much stress on my body all at once when I hit the peak weeks and my body basically shut down in viral hell for 12 weeks. Maybe I would have gotten sick anyway, but maybe it would not have been as awful as it was. Then I looked at recommended protein intake and what I was actually getting. Many articles recommend 0.6 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. I was only getting about 55 a day and should have been getting closer to 100. My muscles were getting damaged with every run and I was not feeding them what they needed to heal other than loads of rice. So I started protein supplements because I still don’t want to go back to pounds of meat, but I can only take so many beans, lentils, and nuts each day. We’ll see how it pays off in the future, but it can’t hurt.

Even after all of the pain that the last 5 miles of the Pittsburgh Marathon put me through and even after exhaustion as I have ever known, I am driven to get better and follow some of these rules to be a more efficient and less injury prone runner. I want to cross a marathon finish line in good health some day. What it means is better planning for the long haul. Rather than wait for another training sequence to start, why not plan it now while I am still basically resting myself in a post-marathon “holy shit I actually did that” frame of mind. There’s a race in Philadelphia in November. Remember time and patience? It starts now.

I looked all over for plans to help me sort of start over and put into practice everything I have learned, but none of them get me the time and steady increase I am looking for. So I made my own. It lasts 35 weeks and assumes that you are already able to run a solid 25-30 mile week without pain or exhaustion. What I have done is take the best advice from several training programs and plopped it all into one sheet. This sucker will build mileage, let you rest, and will also give you some tempo time and hills to get that heart pounding and muscles toned. The typical pace should be right around conversational for you or a tad faster. This is about building a base and building fitness over a long time. I am also going to be doing pushups on MWF and will also figure out when to work in other exercises like squats a little bit later on. I use a Polar m400 with a heart monitor to see how hard I am working. Their redesigned Flow app includes some killer exercises to supplement a running program. Great for rest days! So here is the new plan. Feel free to download and share. Just cite where you got it if you can. If you want to start it with me, let me know how it is going.

2016 Run Program

You can also download the 2016 Run Program in a PDF.

Happy Running!