Don’t Avoid the ‘Black Box’

My kidneys hurt! If you had asked me four years ago where my actual kidneys were, I would have pointed to my back and that would have been the end of the conversation. But since 2013, when I missed the opportunity to finish 100 miles, and landed myself in a hospital… well… I’ve gained some familiarity.  My race ended that year at mile 86 because of rhabdomyolysis and a little bit of kidney damage.  Unfortunately my second attempt the following year ended much the same.  

Two weekends ago I made my third attempt at running 100 miles.  I have felt that I did everything I possibly could to set myself up for success: from dietary needs, to clothing, to training, to having the right crew there. But I was unable to finish the distance and I found myself needing to go to the hospital yet again.

Usually, waking up in the morning after the race there’s a halo effect. A period of time when you really don’t feel that bad physically, mentally, or emotionally.  You’re happy with what you could do, and you don’t have any question that you did your best.  But, if you’re honest with yourself, that halo effect ends, and all the uncomfortable emotions and self questioning begins to roll into your mind.

When you don’t achieve the outcome you want at something you’ve worked really hard for, you can’t help but to have feelings of self-doubt, sadness, and disappointment fill you.  I’d say for at least a good day or two I tried ‘strictly’ positive talk.  If that wasn’t working?  Tried and true distraction!  Watch TV, build a birdhouse (not really), or start planning the next race, ANYTHING to not have to feel those emotions that were felt so god-awful.  

But when I’ve finally stop all my ducking and avoiding, cease pushing away all those uncomfortable emotions, or just plain lying to myself with mental smiley bumper stickers, like “I’m fine, everything’s fine!, I always end up taking the only action that has ever helped me process my feelings and improve my process.  It’s what I call…

Deciphering the ‘black box’.  

This is the process of getting to the bottom of what happened after the plane “went down”.  In my case? The plane is the most recent race that went awry, and journaling a ‘court stenographer’ account of everything that transpired is the most helpful thing I can do for myself.   After every event, successful or not, I write down anything and everything I can remember about my race — what went right, what went awry, and everything in between.  This journaling allows me to see what ‘wins’ I can take away from a race (that honestly I might never have seen without Deciphering the black box)  and what ‘setbacks’ I dealt with, so that instead of just letting self criticism erode any further efforts, I can improve and learn grim the entire experience regardless of the outcome.

If I’m honest?  I want no part in this journaling.  It’s hard to face those setbacks and the feelings that accompany them.  To  see them as anything but something to be avoided at all costs. I don’t want to remember the things I didn’t do right (or just plain didn’t go right).  But, I know from past experience and deep practice, that unless I go to that place where I can actually explore and see what I could do better next time around in anything, I am destined to keep repeating the same mistakes.  

And as uncomfortable as all these emotions are, they serve as the greatest motivators for me to improve.  They don’t only allow for growth, they promote it!  They are the catalysts that get me to write down everything that happened, to improve my craft, to get up and try again.  If I could ignore them, stuff them down, or just plain avoid them and that was the answer to get them to subside, I’d probably do just that.  But from past experience, I know this.

There is only relief from my uncomfortable emotions when I allow them to have their say.

Avoidance of uncomfortability, of disappointment, fear, or shame is something we all try to do.  No one wants to hear what these emotions have to say because they feel self-incriminating!   We know what we did wrong, right?  If we’re truthful with ourselves, those uncomfortable emotions that we’re feeling are not there to punish us.  Rather, they’re there to urge us to take actions that will help us get better at what we’re trying to accomplish. Like the medicine our mother gave us when we were young: just because it was hard to swallow, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t good for us.

So, I acknowledge that I’m feeling like I’ve failed, that I’ve let myself and my crew down by not finishing the distance.  I use those feelings to spur myself into action.  Picking up my computer, I begin writing down every single thing that I can remember that happened during the event, diving head first into that black box in my mind, without judgment.  When I finish, I have a lot of substance that I can learn from.  Best of all?  I feel better!  My emotions have been heard.  I have information that might allow me a more successful attempt at those challenges that are so dear to my heart…or even the ones that are brought to my doorstep.

Me and my kidneys are at least now walking with the knowledge that there were a lot of things that I could’ve done better for that race and a great many things I did right.  Most importantly,  without my emotions clouding my reason because I’ve allowed them their say, I can also see the things that were actually out of my control.  Although I know the outcome wasn’t mine to dictate, I do know reviewing my ‘black box’ has allowed me to improve my thoughts and actions in any challenges that I decide to take on in the future.  And consistent effort and improvement is something I can live with.

What Do You Want?

I’m sitting on the edge of my bumper.  Scratch that–now I’m sitting on the bumper. Before that I was in my car for 15 minutes.  Alright…before that it was ‘the struggle’ to get running clothes on this morning.  But hey, I’ve gotten as far as the bumper, so that’s something.  To be honest I feel completely exhausted.  I realize running 60 or 70-miles a week for the past few months could be a factor.  But I know that ‘tired’ and this isn’t it.  This is literally the easiest week I’ve had to do in months. To make it even worse, I’m sitting on this bumper like a worn out prize fighter in a ring (instead, I’m in a parking lot) with the shortest run I have to do on this very easy week in front of me.  I slept alright last night, no complaints there. I ate well too.  

So, what is zapping all of this energy and keeping my butt glued to the back of this car?

My thoughts.

There hasn’t been a minute in the last two weeks that I haven’t had thoughts of this 50 mile training run I have coming up.  Now, if you were to ask me whether or not I was worried about if I could complete this 50 mile training run, I would say no.   I have some physical ailments for sure.  Some nagging pains, difficulties that have created some doubts as to whether or not I’ll physically be able to complete the hundred miles.  I also know I have the legs this year from all the solid training, and have completed some really good long runs.  

Of course, the physical is not where my thoughts go…or, should I say, where my Inner Critic, the voice in my head that feeds me fear and self doubt, takes me.   Those thoughts say, “Yeah, you may feel pretty good at the end of the 50 mile training run…but, you know…another 50 is a whole other thing!”  Another good one, “What happens if you don’t feel good on the 50 miler?  What does that mean for your hundred-miler?”  Or, “I wonder how cold it will be…  Colder than what you’ve been training in, that’s for sure”  It goes on and on…  I think you get the point.

Whether I know it or not, these are the most important moments in training.  It’s when the actual turning of the tide can happen.  And, if I don’t give a real effort to support myself, rest assured  that tide will become a tidal wave that will crash right over me.  What I need now is to give up this inner critic and all of it’s garbage-filled thoughts.  These thoughts are using all of my energy for fuel to ‘supposedly’ keep me safe and sitting on that bumper.  The Inner Critic’s voice is firing off all of these horrible bumper stickers about how I’m not good enough or capable enough so rapidly that I can’t seem to hear a word from my Internal Coach.  My Internal Coach is that other voice in my head that consistently has had my back during these tough moments.  It helps me with constructive criticism.  Reminds me of all the ‘wins’ I’ve accumulated over the many years of running and that this isn’t my first rodeo. 

I’d like to say that times like this (bumper-sitting times) are far and few between.  That I’ve never just had those human moments where, having that Inner Critic front and center megaphoning self doubt and fear, has caused me to pack it up and take comfort over progress.  It has.  But, over the years, it has become far more of the exception rather than the rule.  I’ve learned that if all I can manage is to stop and just ask myself one question before throwing in the towel it is going to be this:

What do I want?

I’m not talking about the fancy shirts, medals, or belt buckles from finishing races.  I’m not talking about accolades, people patting me on the back, telling me how awesome I am, a lucrative contract with Adidas that gets me my very own cool van, whisking me around the country to the all high profile races, kissing babies, and seeing myself on a Wheaties box (though, as I’m actually typing this, that sounds like that would be pretty damn cool…  Not the point though).  What I’m talking about is, “What do I want to feel?”  Because right now, by listening to my Inner Critic, I am feeding myself thoughts, images, worries, and concerns about a future that hasn’t happened, yet this is creating fear, anxiety, and self-doubt in real-time.  

These emotions are unhelpful, energy-draining, and dampen the wick of inspiration and motivation that I know is in me.  I’m not saying all these self-preservation emotions aren’t ever needed.  I’m just saying, they’re not needed right now.  Not while I’m stuck to this bumper.  

What are needed are the wonderful images and memories of past successes in this arena (any arena I’ve been successful in actually) that fill me with inspiration, confidence, and possibility.  Mental reminders that provide gratefulness (which is the antidote to my Inner Critic’s anxiety) that I actually have experience in this arena.  That it’s normal to be nervous before a race, or even the smallest of training runs as I get closer to my event.  And that every, single time I’ve chosen to get off ‘the bumper’ and make the effort required, whether on easy training runs or in the hardest races I’ve ever done, I’ve felt stronger, lighter, and more capable within just a few minutes for the mere fact that I put myself out there. 

I’ve got my hydration pack on and I’ve slowly gotten up off the bumper.  I’ve accepted that this may not be my fastest or best-feeling training run.  And that’s okay.  Truth be told, I’m going to feel a lot better for getting out and actually doing this, than if I had handed my fate over to that Inner Critic today.  What I really get is the confidence that I can trust myself and get myself out the door when I need to, and the joy in the accomplishment that I will feel when I am finished with this training run.  Gaining those feelings is worth a little physical discomfort.  In fact, it’s worth a lot of physical discomfort.  

It will be incredible if I can finish my hundred-mile race, and I am sure that will fill me with all kinds of confidence, joy, and feelings of capableness for myself.  But if, for whatever reason, I am not successful, the confidence and joy that comes from knowing that I gave everything that I had, that I put in real, consistent effort to get myself to the starting line, is just as real and just as important to me.  These emotions are what I want to fee/. I know they are not found on the bumper of my car, they are earned out on the road.  That’s where I’m headed.

Watch Out For The Hook

“Have you been able to rebuild your acupuncture practice?”

I can feel my jaw clench just a smidge. Now, I’ve just had a conversation with this woman about my business and how I’ve been writing, speaking, and coaching on emotional resilience for about two years now. Yet, following her question, I see her looking at me with sympathetic eyes…they look patronizing.  Again I say, “I stopped practicing acupuncture about a year ago and my coaching is—“

“That must be just so tough just starting a new business right now…such a struggle!” she says, cutting me off.

I can literally feel my face start to tingle. I know if I looked in the mirror I’d be seeing that nice rosey red!  My next words come out a little chewed on since I’m almost grinding my teeth at this point.  “My online coaching practice has been going extraordinarily well. It’s the keynote speaking that–”

“Well, if you or your family need anything,” she says over her shoulder as she gets back into her BMW, “please don’t be too proud to ask!  Let everyone know they’re in my prayers!” 

To be honest, I really don’t know if she said anything after the proud comment.  My seething anger was creating so much of its own dialogue at this point, I couldn’t have heard God in a fire truck.

My mind is racing: “Can you believe this?! Who the hell does she think she is? Obviously she’s completely unaware and oblivious to other people’s feelings. Driving around in her high and mighty car [I don’t know what that means], with a checkbook to ‘help out’ anybody she perceives is in a lower financial situation than her… Truly! I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense. How does she know me so well that she knows just where to hit me? She must have been up for quite some time thinking of ways to ‘hook me’…  She would have had to know when she’d run into me too, though? Hmmm…

I remember similar thoughts (or panic) in my head when I started boxing.  Fighters would come out and just exploit every weakness that I possibly had. This was amateur fighting, so there’s no “watching the film of the opponent” the night before.  They would just know in “real time” after a few minutes in the ring where to hit me, repeatedly, to hurt me the most.  Many new fighters wear their “tells” on their sleeves, and a good boxer can easily learn how to exploit a new boxer’s weaknesses.  The problem is that this was an old woman in her late 70’s, and my guess is that she is not a really good boxer.  In fact, I would have sincere doubts that she ever really boxed (this is an assumption, but I feel it’s a relatively safe one).  So, if that is the case, I have to wonder how this elderly (but spry) woman was able to “lay me out” by hooking me emotionally in the center of the grocery store parking lot without really even knowing me!?  The answer is simple:

I was hooking myself.

Here’s the thing: emotions (energy in motion) are created inside of us.  How we think, feel, our behaviors, even our biochemistry (that 3rd slice of pizza you ate) all play a part in the creation of the energy called emotions within our body.  If this seventy-plus year old fly weight is triggering something inside me (the way I feel or think about a particular situation in my life), the only person who has any control over whether or not I get or continue to be “hooked” by this is me.   

Think about it: if she had asked me about my running, I wouldn’t have had even the slightest of problems.  If she asked me how my son was doing in college, I would’ve told her about how difficult it was for him and anyone else who had to be home from college because of COVID, otherwise nada on the “emotion scale”.  On top of that, I would have chalked her mentioning it up to being motivated by real concern.   Say something that was new for me or something I was already a bit anxious about?  My thoughts immediately go to: “She’s the grim reaper trying to get at my soul!”  And I create different emotions running through my body.

Even though my coaching business is going very well, I’m nervous about how my speaking engagements will go in the future because it’s an “unknown”.  I made the tough decision to leave my very good acupuncture practice and, after a fantastic 2019 speaking year, I have been uncertain how I will be able to shift to making real connections through virtual workshops and presentations.  So, in reality, she was unknowingly throwing darts 🎯 at my emotions board and hit MY emotional bullseye.

We all get hooked at times.  The trouble is, we often don’t see it as our issue.  It usually feels like the other person is attacking us or trying to get us riled up in some way…or just plain being insensitive.  But, when we take the time to step back into our corner (that quiet place in our heads where we can really examine what is going on for us), we are able to discover that it is our own fear, anxiety, or self-doubt that just got triggered.  Moreover, the other person is typically blithely unaware that they have even hooked us!