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.

Fail Your Way to Your Success

I’m caught in self-doubt. Anyone who has ever put themselves out there, done a new, more difficult, or challenging course has had that moment during their taper where their inner critic, that voice in their heads that judges them harshly, reminding them of all the mistakes, goofs, and blunders they’ve encounter over their training. 

The biggest mistake I made? On the longest training run, which was just last week, I failed to utilize that time on course to try all kinds of different foods (because, honestly, you want to have ‘choices’ in the culinary department when attempting 100 miles). I’m not gonna lie to you, I’m going to have self-doubt anyway.  I’m going to wonder if I did enough training, but at least I have my training log to reference.  But, during my run, when I felt my stomach go off around mile 30, instead of slowing down, focusing on my heart rate, and just trying some different foods and being ok with whatever happened, I stuck with what worked. Or, more truthfully…what didn’t.  “The foods I was eating at least weren’t making me throw up,” I thought to myself.  But honestly, the goal was not to run a 55 mile training run without throwing up. The goal was to accomplish the distance, try new foods and learn.  

I simply didn’t want to take the risk. To have things go from bad to worse.

So, I watched my time instead of my heart rate, ran through aid stations when I probably should’ve taken a seat for five minutes and tried a new food. I should’ve tried different things besides peanut butter and jelly, because that old standby was not working. I should not have an Ensure shake every single hour of those 11 hours of training when I knew that my stomach wasn’t a big fan of them at 10 miles in. Then why did I stick with what wasn’t working?  I didn’t want to try something and have it be worse.

One of the biggest obstacles that we face with any challenge is how we deal with making a mistake. Most of us will stick with something that we know isn’t working simply because it has been tried and tested and worked at a time before we changed what we were doing. The reason for this is simple:

Setbacks don’t feel good.

The shame of goofing up and answering a question wrong in front of others, the embarrassment of reaching for something out of your comfort zone and falling on your face…in the mud…while it’s raining. The self-judgment that goes along with publicly making a mistake or messing up in front of others, or even just ourselves, when we put ourselves out there doing anything and it doesn’t go well… It simply sucks. But, if we’re honest (which can be a tall order when wanting to make a change), are we really saving ourselves emotional pain by not putting ourselves out there? Avoiding change, allowing our goals to sit in the dark corners of our minds, unrealized, comes with a price. A price to what we pay for trying. That price is uncomfortability.

It is true that when you go after the things that are most important to you and you fall a little bit short it feels emotionally difficult. It can rob you of your confidence for a minute, or longer and cause you to self-question. But here’s a secret:

No one feels avoids uncomfortability when they don’t try either.

Your inner critic tries to tell you that if you just leave things the way they are that you will be better off. But, if you’re honest with yourself, aren’t you already feeling regret, or shame, or disappointment for not going after the things you want or trying to make the changes in your life that could lead you to greater success? Most of the time we’re already feeling regret, self-judgment, and fear of being stagnant in our lives.  The pain of allowing setbacks to permanently stop you from attempting what matters most to you can linger like a chronic, life-threatening disease that takes its victim only after years of ‘playing it safe’ has silenced their heart.  

I have one long run left to do next week. It’s a night run. I probably should’ve done more of them, but I’m going to make this one count. I’m going to practice with all kinds of food that might help me reach my goal of completing 100 miles. I’m sure some food won’t work out, and there is a very good chance I’ll be suffering from the mistakes I make along that training run. But a consistent effort that keeps my emotional heart beating is better than a flat line before I even walk on the course. So, I choose the uncomfortability that comes from the attempt, rather than apathy.

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.