Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pushing Back The Black Fog

** Side Note ** Tonight two people - to whom I am not related by blood! - admitted to me that they read my blog.  Yip!  One of them is my own Track Torturess, hence why I found this topic timely.  Those readers who are related to me by blood have admitted to being slightly appalled by the situation.  Ma Support Staff says "I never thought I would follow anyone through their blog, let alone my own daughter.  But it's the only way I know you're alive!"  It's like 21st Century smoke signals....for parents who don't text. ** End of Side Note **

I think everyone experiences extremely challenging moments differently, both as compared to other people, and as one would compare their physical experience to their mental experience.  Furthermore, I know everyone responds differently, especially mentally, to their personal physical and mental cues of an extremely challenging moment.

Whether or not an individual's physical and mental responses to those cues are or are not under their immediate control is a subject of great debate.  Matt Fitzgerald, who writes for the Competitor Group and others, is the current standard bearer for this topic and he believes "training the brain" - to address the responses to duress - is as imperative as training the body.  I guess, as you will read, I kind of agree with him, since getting through my days and ways requires a little of both of these types of training.

[For the purpose of this post, let us define "extremely challenging moment" as a short-term moment brought on by physical effort and exertion, removed from a hunger flat or nutrition plan failure (meaning not bonking, hitting the wall, or otherwise running out of calories).  I am not referring to a moment of public embarrassment or something.]

For me, the physical cue of an extremely challenging moment is what I have come to call the Black Fog.  During an extreme nutrition plan failure, most people see stars, spots, or flashes of lights - because their brain, which runs only on a supply of ready simple sugars, has literally run out of fuel.  Again, I am not talking about those phenomena, although my Black Fog sometimes does have similar fake visual cues.  But most often, my Black Fog is simply that: a fog.  Things and time passes, but their passage is not especially noted.  The world gets very small, limited to the here, the now, the next 30 sec or 50 meters.  The body keeps on ticking, although mostly through subconscious neuromuscular patterns.  And most notably - the source of the Black - my eyes desperately want to close.  I feel literally too tired to keep them open and keeping my vision clear seems like the greatest feat in the world. 

The mental cue, not surprisingly, is "I'd like to stop now please.  I want off this ride."  [Again Mr. Fitzgerald would argue that this mental cue is really your body telling your mind to tell you to stop.  A mental feedback loop created to protect the body from seriously over-extending itself....] But I can tell you, if I obeyed that order every time I heard it, I wouldn't get very far in this sport.  If I obeyed that order every time I heard it, I wouldn't learn just how low my body thinks the threshold is for over-extending itself.  Oh ho ho, loyal readers (all 2 of you), if we obeyed that order every time we heard it, we'd all still be crawling because we would never have learned to walk.  "I want off this vertical ride."  A bit on an over-exaggeration, but yes, that is how artificially low the threshold can be.  But we only realize this once the previous threshold has been shattered.  If I obeyed that order every time I heard it, I would never know just how high the threshold can be.

So....the crux of the post, topic, and larger push to succeed at sport does anyone get past the mental cue and this seemingly too-restrictive-for-growth mental feedback loop?  Or since this is my blog, how do I get past this mental cue?

It's oh so simple, but also oh so devastatingly hard.  Partly because what works for me won't work for you, and partly because what works now won't work forever, and partly...and this is the crux of the have to believe, deep down, what you are telling yourself.  Your body simply will not believe infomercials and the Home Shopping Network in this state.

Some people respond with The One Thing.  The one thing is your ultimate carrot-and-stick.  A Kona spot, a certain finish time or place, the promise of a certain food at the finish line.  What would you walk over hot coals for?  Because believe me, I've run an IM marathon on what felt like hot coals, and you have to pretty in touch with your ultimate desires and truly believe what you are telling yourself in order to not ease off, give up, or otherwise throw in the towel.

But The One Thing - the identification and use of internal motivating factors at say, mile 22 of an IM - is different from pushing back the Black Fog - a short-term coping mechanism for the oxygen debt and do-or-die of that last interval, last quarter mile, last 30 sec. 

And the mechanism that works for me, right now is:

"This is the next challenge [or extremely challenging moment] I am going to face today."

When the Black Fog descends and I can't see where I am swimming, riding, or running and "I want off this ride," I silently counter with that, just that.  The gauntlet is thrown.  My body and mind already know the length of the bargain - to the end of the interval, usually - so it's not some infinite deadline, but a small, manageable, known quantity.  Very occasionally a nutrition plan failure and/or my personal check engine light will grind any sort of continuing-under-duress negotiations to a halt, but otherwise the goal is to pick up the gauntlet, stand up to myself, and short-circuit the feedback loop.

Sometimes we are our own biggest competitor.  How far back can I push the Black Fog?

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