Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Face the fear with rock-solid preparation

Fear is an emotion that triggers a staggering series of events. Upon first sign of trouble, a tiny organ in the brain, the amygala, begins to shout out audibles, as screeching sirens blare out warnings. The heart pounds, blood pressure sky rockets, breathing quickens, and stress hormones stream out from their hiding spots. Blood shunts to the extremities to enable flight and the cerebral cortex, the center for reason and judgment, puts out the "gone fish'n" sign. In both acute and chronic situations, poor decisions are easily made.

Granted, these responses to fear can come in handy. A guy jumps from behind a bush to attack, and you set a new world sprint record. Or, you come across an upside-down car, righting all of it's 2000 pound mangled frame in an effort to free its passenger. Fear can drive unexpected performance. But, fear can also destroy in a much more sinister way.

We talk a lot about fear in athletics; fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear stemming from the past, and fear contemplating the future. Fear sometimes comes into play by what we have done. Other times we fear because of what we have not done. It's possible fear can help us see more clearly, like when we get caught doing something stupid and we panic anticipating the consequences. We are awakened to our own idiocy, much like getting slapped up side of the head. But more times than not, residing fear, in particular, clouds judgement because of loss of perspective. We fret "what ifs" and become mired in potentialities. The result? We go no where fast, paralyzed to take the next step, fearful of the leap to new levels, intimidated by others, and held in place because our tongues are stuck to the frozen pole of unhealthy comparisons. I don't think it has to be this way.

I came across a fascinating TED Talk the other day. Alex Honnold opens the speech by showing a video clip of him climbing El Capitan in Yosemite Park, CA. He is wedged into a narrow split in the vertical wall. He can be seen reaching into his chalk bag to cover his hands in the white powder. But what is not seen is a rope, because there is no rope. 2500 dizzying feet below him is the ground. 500 feet above, the top of this humongous slab of granite. All that holds him to the wall are his well-placed hands and feet. There is neither place nor means to cut the climb short or take a do-over. He is alone. Just him and the wall. One wrong move equaled sure death. I felt my own breathing quicken as I imagined being in his spot. How in the world did he not let fear rule the day?

As I watched his story unfold, I heard him tell of his harrowing solo free climb of equally iconic Half
Dome. At a particularly difficult spot, panic set in. He had doubt whether he could perform the next move necessary to propel him further upward. He had climbed the wall two days prior but with a rope for safety's sake. But now, with the  knowledge that mis-playing that critical move would result in death, he had no recourse but to go for it. He did, and he lived to tell of the successful climb. Still, Honnold spoke of a dissatisfaction even with the accomplishment. He yearned to be a great climber, not a lucky one.

Though he did not free solo for the next two years, he spent seven dreaming about a free solo of El Cap, a 3000-foot wall most people take days to climb while harnessed into a sophisticated rope system. Then for two years he relentlessly prepared. He spent days on end rappelling off the top on a 1000 foot rope, inspecting every potential hand and foot hold and memorizing the thousands of moves that would be necessary. He felt the texture of the rock, visualizing his mindset as he anticipated the epic and ropeless future climb. From the bottom, he rope-climbed with an empty backpack, collecting loose rocks that cluttered many of the cracks. For a full year, he specifically stretched knowing he needed to have optimal flexibility to make the same kind of move he had experienced on Half Dome. Honnold says it was imperative that he "consider every possibility" to eliminate any room for doubt to creep in, because doubt is the precursor of fear. He was meticulous in preparation for his "choreographed dance" up the sheer face of the wall. He was ridiculously faithful in controlling the controllables, and in doing so, fear was conquered as well as that wall. In "achieving mastery" with relentless pursuit of excellence, fear was not even a factor.

The Liberty volleyball team left today for the conference tournament. The women on the basketball team play their first game this evening. The swimmers and divers have a weekend meet in their sites. I wonder if they are ready to face fear head on. Will there be fear in serving what could be the last point of the match? Will a player on the free-throw line be thinking about missing? Will the diver play it safe on the take-off out of fear of over-rotating and creating an embarrassing amount of splash? If they prepared well, fear should not win. If they did not prepare well, all bets are off.

What strikes me profoundly is the fact that fastidious preparation is the most significant deterrent to fear. Sure, there will be some nervousness because nothing is ever guaranteed. But fear? Not if we consider every possibility and leave no room for doubt to creep in. The process is not easy, but it is worth it, even if your life does not actually depend on it.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The race I did not run

It was the third Saturday in October 1994. As I stood in the dark pondering the day, I was a jumbled mess of nerves gone wild. "Fifty miles? What was I thinking?!?"

But then again, when David Horton, the author of this race through the Blue Ridge, chides you with "Bet you can't run fifty miles," there is no recourse but to prove him wrong.

That was then and this is now. A lot has happened over the years. I've been on the top of the podium, run sub-9 hours, but I've also finished a mere fifteen minutes under the twelve-hour cut-off. I've had twenty finishes and two unfortunate medically-related DNFs. I've run the entire length sweeping the course, nearly getting stranded in Montebello because  everyone had already abandoned the finish line. And then was the time I left Virginia's borders so I would not be tempted to run too soon after extensive feet and ankle surgery. But today I did something very unfamiliar. I drove around the countryside and watched.

Today was all about Hannah Quigg, one of my Jr. Shindigglers. Some years ago, after kids I coached in high school caught the adventure bug and followed me to the mountains in their college years, we formed an unbreakable bond. Together, the five of them and one of me, called ourselves the Shindigglers. Oh how I cherish all the miles we shared, the adventures created, and the honesty and openness the trail seems to produce. We did life together, on and off the rocky, dirt paths we trod.

But now those five have grown up and gone away. Sarah lives in Mexico, is married and has a tiny wee one, a Shindigglet, if you please. Abby joined her beloved in holy matrimony this last summer and works as a critical care nurse in Minnesota. Rebecca is hitched to a preacher. Caroline is in medical school. Kendal lives in Texas and will say "I do" this spring. She, too, is a nurse.

With the original Shindigglers no longer available to hit the trails, I've adopted a small but growing group I call the Jr. Shindigglers. I coached Makena in high school and now as a college student, she is running long and strong. In fact, she ran the four races in the 2017 Lynchburg Ultra Series, including this race of masochistic proportions. And then there is Hannah. A classmate of Makena's, she is one of four Quiggs who called me Coach T, sister to Sarah and Abby. She ran the first three 2017 LUS races, but a week before last year's Masochist, her knee went wonky when playing broom ball on the ice. It took months to heal. So on this fine November day, it was time for the monkey to quit taking a free ride on her back. MMTR 2018 was a 50 mile run for redemption.

The night before the race, I asked Hannah to email crew directions. I know the trail so well I could run from point A to point B with my eyes closed. But drive? I had no idea what roads would get me to one or two aid stations. So with directions and coffee in hand, I set off. It was crisp, the sun shining brightly. The trees shimmered with brilliant golds and yellows, the reds just as fetching. I was constantly wowed at the beauty. I couldn't remember a previous race that rivaled the spectacle. But then again, I was never riding the roads in a car nor hanging at an aid station. I wondered if I had
previously failed to appreciate the finest nature had to offer in the heat of the challenge.

Runners approached the aid station, traveling along the gravel track that parallels a swift, bold stream. I picked Hannah out of the crowd, her running style well known to me. She was cruising along sporting a huge grin. With a hug, a few words of advice, and a quick refuel she was off again.

I ran backwards on the course from the next crew access point. Makena had jumped in to keep her company, making spotting the pair easier than picking out a screaming baby in a Sunday service. Laughter and optimism reigned supreme, even when Hannah participated in an impromptu interview for my cell phone. When we arrived at the aid station it was more advice and encouragement, more food, more progress. The two started up the mountain and I started up the car. Quite the contrast from the last 24 years.

I had plenty of time to socialize at the next three aid stations. Chatter was light and easy with aid workers and spectators. It was getting easier to anticipate Hannah's arrivals because I recognized the runners who ran a few minutes in front of her. But in the quieter moments I projected myself into the race, recalling what it was like to have 30 miles on the legs and 20 more to go. Was I jealous? Hum. "Not sure," I thought as I zipped up my coat and snugged my hood to keep the wind from chilling me to the bone.

The last time I sent Hannah down the trail she was 35 miles into the race. Though still smiling and positive, she was getting tired. Makena's time as a companion runner had come to an end. The last miles were going to be foundational to Hannah's development as an ultrarunner. She needed to set her own pace, find her own limits, and come to understand herself in a whole new way. It was an important fifteen miles in which to embrace suffering, solitude, and sustaining grace.

The clock ticked 11:07 when Hannah Quigg crossed the line, exhausted and beyond happy to bring relentless forward progress to a halt. Sausage-like fingers told the story of fluid shifts and electrolyte imbalances. Reddened skin spoke of the increasing cold and biting wind as the sun dropped below the tree tops. But she smiled. She accomplished the task. She started. She finished. She cemented her role as a second generation Shindiggler.

I could not be happier after a race I did not run.

A walk in the park and a pink finish line

By the time I finish most races, I've figured out at least the first paragraph of my post-race story. This was one of the few where the ...