Self-talk – Just Keep Going

I posted an essay in this space a couple of years ago entitled Resilience (click for hotlink) , and in it I wrote about some of the standard methods by which people deal with adversity, one of those being ‘self-talk.’ I had an experience this weekend which gave me some insight, not only into self-talk, but also into resilience.

I signed up for and completed the annual SuperFrog Half-Ironman Triathlon here in Coronado. This was my third time doing this event, and I had appropriately up-gunned my normal training about 30% over the last several months to get ready for it. Even though conditions were near-perfect, it was a long, hard day. I finished a few minutes after the target time I had set for myself. I’m not sure if I could have made up those few minutes anywhere on the course.

As with any triathlon, the run is the gut check. In my case it had taken me nearly 3 hrs and 45 minutes to complete the swim and the bike portions of the event and it was time to begin the 13.1 mile run. I had prepared self-talk messages to help get me through what I knew from experience would be a tough slog during the run.

Quit Whining! This is what defines who you are! Look around and see what is going on around you.  Appreciate this – you choose to be here. This is exactly where you want to be!  Just keep going.

I had thought these were pretty good self-talk messages, and also probably appropriate to offer to BUD/S students going through Hell Week.

Well, here’s what happened:

About half way through the run, as I expected, I wasn’t having any fun at all. I was trying these self-talk messages, but found that only one of them worked: just keep going. Occasionally I would add – Quit feeling sorry for yourself. Quit thinking. But always: just keep going.

I found that any more elaborate self-talk took more energy than I had – I could only manage just keep going. On the final leg of the run, running north on the beach toward the finish line, I tried again.

It was a beautiful day, the waves breaking to my left, a light breeze in my face, Pt Loma in the distance off to my left. I told myself to look around – appreciate the beauty of this time and place, and enjoy that I was almost done with this challenge for which I’d been training for months. I found no energy to appreciate or enjoy any of that. Just keep going, I told myself. And then, Can you run for another 4 minutes before you stop and walk? Just keep going….

I did find that water and calories made a difference.  We should never underestimate the importance of nutrition and bio-chemistry, but we also shouldn’t overestimate what they can do for us. The mind is a very important player in the mind-body team, and self-talk is a key tool with which the mind influences the body.

When I finally crossed the finish line, I was too tired to be happy or relieved. I still had to give up my timer chip, walk around the gates, find a place to sit down, think about picking up my bike and other gear, get home…just keep going. About half an hour later I started to feel a bit of energy and a little spark started to come back….

Comparatively speaking, my event was nothing.  I thought of Rick and Shannon Rochelle and Jake Freed, friends of mine from NOLS who have done over thirty 100 mile races between them, and my friend Dan Williams who does several full Ironman competitions a year, double the distance I was doing.   After my race, I spoke with Rick about self-talk during endurance events, and he told me he uses “relentless forward motion” (or “RFM”) as his single-focus thought, and added that when he comes to an aid station, he reminds himself to “beware the chair.”  At 2 AM, running alone in the mountains, he may call on, “just because you feel horrible now, doesn’t mean it’s going to get worse.” But sometimes it does.

All of us who choose to do these events, know that the suffering is temporary.  In my case, I knew it would be over in a mere 6 and half hours (actual time: 6:24).  As I was noticing how some of my self-talk messages just weren’t having any impact, I briefly thought of Jim Stockdale in the Hanoi Hilton, or Viktor Frankl in Auschwitz, or Ernest Shackleton in Antarctica – none of whom had chosen the hell they found themselves in, nor did they know whether they would ever get out of it.

Just keep going…

It seemed that for me at least, when I was exhausted and struggling, there was room for only one thought in my mind – just keep going. It is a positive version of “Just don’t quit.” Or “Never give up.” Somehow it seems less than “Put out!” or “Finish strong! It pays to be a winner!” But for me, at that place and time, it was all I could do to just keep going.

Just keep going helped me keep at bay the insidious negatives, like “Man, this really sucks!” and “What the F@#% was I thinking when I signed up for this?!” or “You don’t have to do this, you can just walk it in – who will care?” 

Quit thinking…. Just keep going….

I find it useful from time to time to take on something that I know will be a struggle. I believe I can experience and appreciate joy, happiness and pleasure more because I choose to get outside my comfort zone occasionally.  I know that suffering exists, whether we choose it or it is forced upon us.  This past weekend I learned again, that sometimes when we’re struggling, there is no energy or attention left for joy, or aesthetic pleasures, or wonder. These are the times when our best choice is to just keep going…

Bob in Tri

Wisdom comes alone through suffering. Aeschylus.

21 thoughts on “Self-talk – Just Keep Going

  1. I am absolutely lost in admiration! I have never been one for challenging myself physically and I am in awe of people like you who can complete (or even start!) these punishing events.

    At times, and in many different circumstances, we all need to tell ourselves to “just keep going¬. Today, I will most certainly have to keep repeating this mantra as it is the dullest, most depressing morning with typical English drizzle and all I really want to do is go back to bed!

    Thanks for another interesting read!


    • Sandra – sometimes going back to bed is THE right thing to do! Winston Churchill said, “Never Give in” speech ended “except to convictions of honor and good sense” Sometimes ‘good sense’ tells us to go back to bed!


  2. Bob, great job and a finish is a finish! A friend once told me, “they give out the same medals to you as they do to the person who wins”. I always think about that. Looking forward to our next event and more importantly the challenge of the daily grind of training and what that journey teaches us.


  3. Bob congratulations on finishing a tuff event. I have never done anything that extreme but we have a mutual friend Dan and I have a few other friends that do these test of endurance often and I am always in awe of their dedication and drive. Good Work



    • Thanks Frank – It doesn’t have to be an endurance event in which we struggle to ‘just keep going.’ There have been times in the Winds when I was having to use the same self-talk – including a couple of times when I was following you!


  4. Thanks, Bob, I enjoyed that.

    I recently read (wish I could remember where…but I can’t) a piece on the power of mantra’s. The gist was that a mantra (or self-talk message) can be a powerful thing, but it can be powerful in both directions: constructive (“just keep going”) and destructive (“wow, this really sucks”). Bottom line of the article, I think, was that we should choose our mantra’s with care and deliberation.

    Given the potential destructive capacity of a poorly chosen mantra, I suppose it’s understandable why a simple “om” remains the gold standard of mantras!

    By the way, “just keep going” seems like a terrific mantra for dissertation writing.


    • Roger – the connection between the simple self-talk message and the mantra hadn’t occurred to me. I also had a friend who has cancer and responded that he calls ‘self-talk’ praying. Another friend responded that he wondered whether mental fatigue might have the same effect as high stress in impairing cognitive abilities and noted the simple 3 step ‘mantra’ that goes with weapon malfunction drills (tap, rack, bang). Mental messaging gets more interesting when you merge it with visualization and self-hypnosis. Can be for good or evil. Other interesting feedback about how it doesn’t work in relationships, or whether just keep going can be counter-productive if one stays in a soul killing job. Regarding the Dissertation – remember Hemingway’s comment about writing: It’s easy – you just sit at the typewriter and bleed!


  5. Bob, wonderfully written, and timely. I have my own circumstances through which I’m enduring, finding my way to the completion phase. Thank you for the inspiration and support through sharing your experience.


    • Pete – This is not an either or proposition. I’m a both/and kind of guy. By the way, the six and a half hours was not all misery – there were large parts of it that were truly fun. During the last 40 minutes of the bike and the last 90 minutes of the run, the needle on my fun-meter was lying flat on the left side. But I know you know that a little misery makes that round of golf followed by beers that much sweeter. I’m lucky able to do both and I’m glad I can enjoy at least the golf with you, though I’ll never be able to keep up with you swimming….


  6. Great recap of the race Bob! Always impressed with how you continue to challenge yourself in so many ways. You continue to be a great role model for many folks. Keep the “Bob’s Corner” wisdom coming, I need it! 😉


  7. Bob, good stuff. I`m at a place at work where the struggle I have is not how do I just keep going, but more aligned with should I keep going? In your case you signed up for the event and in many ways I’ve signed up for my current job. Which leads me to the next question your blog has led me to. Your just keep going led to a finish line. I think I need to define what my current job’s finish line should be. I’m not talking about an annual metric or performance indicator, rather when i look back in 20 years, what do I want that memory to be. I don’t have the answer yet, but will keep thinking.

    Cheers TJ


  8. Very impressive. I never doubted you would do well. The mind is a powerful thing. In the past I have used ” You can do it” and I don’t look ahead too far, just in front of my feet. Although, I must say I’ve never attempted anything so physically and mentally grueling. That’s why you made it as a SEAL, mental stamina. Way to go. I’m happy for you regarding your accomplishment.


  9. A number of people have replied directly to me, as well as posting here. I summarize it below:
    – Self Talk is like a mantra – and can have a powerful impact on how we think – we must be careful to choose positive mantras.
    -Self Talk is also like prayer, as a friend of mine who has cancer reminded me.
    -One motivator for ‘just keep going’ is the fear of the shame of letting others down. One respondent told me of several incidents of when he probably would have given up, if others hadn’t been counting on him.
    -One respondent wondered if severe stress may have a similar effect of limiting cognitive ability as severe fatigue. He noted that weapons malfunction drills in the infantry are simple and mantra-like – (tap, rack, bang) and dialing 911 is only three numbers. He points out that these examples show how a simple self-talk message may be all you can handle not only when you’re exhausted, but also when your system is overloaded with fear and stress.
    -One respondent pointed out how “Just Keep Going” or other simple messages aren’t effective in the complex world of relationships, and another noted that he was wrestling with his ‘don’t quit’ mentality in a job which is killing his soul. Obviously simple self-talk messages probably don’t work in making decisions in complex situations, requiring wisdom, judgment and insight. I reminded him that Churchill’s “Never Give In” speech ended with except to convictions of honor and good sense.
    -I also had a friend send me a paper written by a Navy Chaplain about a different kind of resilience – the resilience of dealing with tragedy. This chaplain had been part of the team that helped families prepare to receive the remains of their loved ones in Dover Delaware when being brought home after being killed or dying overseas. A very tough job – and the excellent paper speaks not only to the resilience required of family members, but also the resilience needed by chaplains who have to deal with tragic grief on a daily basis.

    Some really interesting feedback. Thank you all. Bob


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s