Wednesday, April 16, 2014

running without a rope

*I had a really hard time with this post. It's been rewritten so many times I finally just decided to throw it out there.

Molly Brown spent a lot of time on the mental game of Ultimate. To help we asked Scott Gurst to give occasional talks to our team about training your mind. I love all of his talks, I've heard a lot of them several times, yet each time I find something new to ponder or implement in my life; both in ultimate and beyond. One of his talks is about fear and "climbing without a rope" and it seems even more relevant to me at this stage in my running career and life.

sometimes ropes are helpful when river crossing

In rock climbing there's a style of climbing called "free soloing". It basically means you climb without the aid of a rope. If you want a more in depth description you can google-fu it. There is no room for error, all you can do is climb up. If you read impressions from free climbers you'll hear similar assessments of the challenges. The difficulty is not the physical challenge of climbing, but the mental difficulty of staying focused. With a rope you have something to catch you, a safety net in case things go wrong. What do you do when that net is gone?

Running solo is less risky than free-soloing but there are more similarities then you would expect. I think one of the biggest ones is the idea of letting go and just running. It's easy, especially when you're feeling fatigued or frustrated during a race, to stop the free rhythm of running and focus on everything else. You start to think about your past training, your food intake, your pace, your clothing choice, how long you've been running, how much longer you will have to continue running. While there is a time and a place for some thought (nutrition, pace, and clothing), the rest is stuff you cannot change and therefore need to push it out of your head. It's really hard to stay focused and not let your mind wander to things that hint at failure. You can't worry about your training because you're there, you're running. The best thing you can do is just keep running. If you don't just believe you'll be able to run uphill forever then it's easy to just want to give up on running that hill in the first place.

Another similarity I see is the concept of being solo. Running, in itself, is a solo event. It makes sense, your mode of transport is you. If someone is carrying you, it's not really running. Do they have marathon piggy-back races? But many runners will tell you that the act of running is often a very social experience. We depend on each other for motivation, for intel on trail conditions, or for an extra gu when we've run out. Although we runners pride ourselves in the self-propelled nature of our sport, running solo is often a scary thing.

Not piggy back, but I doubt Eric would have carried me around the whole tournament
I start running, really running, 8 years ago. For the entire time I've had the same running partner. Having someone else to depend on to make decisions on where to run, what to wear, what to eat, when to eat, even what shoe to buy was a pretty secure rope and safety net. Someone to complain about the weather to, to share in the misery with, to celebrate a good run with, and to drink a beer post run with. If I failed it wasn't really my fault since I didn't make any decisions without his input. If we got lost on a trail I had someone to blame. I didn't have to just go out and run and see what happened, I depended on a safety net to guide me to what I needed to do. It was really nice to not have to make decisions, all I had to do was show up. It was also nice to know there was someone right there who know exactly what you were going through. Plus, everyone knows a celebratory beer tastes much sweeter with friends. Now that I'm running without a rope I have to make all the decisions.

Ok, I admit, that sounds a little overly dramatic. Yes I can still ask people about trails, I can still go running with people, I can probably still bum food off of people if need be. But there is a sense of loneliness when you start venturing out on runs on your own. You lose that safety net and it's easy to say no to a challenging run or route. A safety net, which could be a running partner or even a familiar route/trail, allows us to stop focusing on our individual goal and the motivation to challenge ourselves can be lost. I was in charge of my own training now, coupled with a race distance that is completely new to me, so I had to figure out on my own how to approach it. It is way too easy to bail out and skip a new run or a new running partner.  But I didn't sign up for a race to bail out, I signed up to work towards running 100 miles.

So how do we move forward? How do we run without a rope? Scott Gurst shared another important piece of advice during this talk, borrowed for the author/athlete John Bringham. Bringham wrote a book called "The Accidental Athlete" and in it he wrote:

"We never know what is going to be our last best day. the race that turns out to be our last best day can't be recognized in the moment, it can be seen only in retrospect."

You never new what race will be your best, your peak, until after it's happened. If we continue to run and train with a bail out, a rope, we might never reach our goal and run the risk of looking back at our running career with a lot of missed chances. This doesn't mean go out and try to win every trail run and race, but if you move forward always thinking that you can save it for the next run or the next race, there might not be one. Maybe you'll get hurt, maybe life will happen and you can't sign up for a race. I look back at my ultimate career and wonder was 2012 my last best chance at a nationals title? I probably won't know that for another few years, but I want to do whatever I can to not wonder that about running.

Looking at my training as an opportunity to put it all out for the next race, so if it is my last best chance, I know I put it all out there. This helps overcome the fear of failure or the unknown. If Quad Rock is my last best chance to run that race well, then I'm going to put in the work leading up to it. That means planning on some good hard trail runs to get ready for it, packing my own food, bringing my own water, and double tying my own trail shoes. Luckily I know there will be some awesome people at the finish line ready to imbibe in that celebratory beer with me.

Was 2013 my last best chance for ultra running? I don't think so. I've just dipped my toe into this field and I'm excited about all the strides I've made thus far. It's scary to go at it alone without a veteran ultra runner by my side all the time, but sometimes that rope can also be a weight that holds you back from your real potential. The weight has been shed, the rope is gone, whether I was ready for it or not and there's no where to go but up.