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…
Wisdom comes alone through suffering. Aeschylus.