You can, or you can’t. You will, or you won’t. There is a point in every hard workout where I contemplate stopping early. Eight hills are plenty for today. You don’t feel great. You didn’t sleep well. It’s OK to back off a bit. Twenty minutes in the gym is good enough. Fifteen pushups? Not this set, let’s stop at ten. The discipline to say yes to more is definitely not automatic. It’s not a born trait. It’s not genetic. Your behavior is cultivated through repetition. Therefore, you become predictable, in a good or bad way, successful or unsuccessful, with each and every decision you make. Do you look for solutions, or seek a way out?
Comfort zones stagnate. Time, distance, weight, repetition, rest, etc. all play their respective roles in progressing you towards improvement. Each element is adjustable. Each adjustment either increases or decreases difficulty. Staying at a consistent stimulus, or working within the same parameters, causes stagnation. A new normal is continuously being defined. As you adapt to stress, via exposure and absorption (rest), you grow. This growth is both physical and mental. The mental aspect is key. Once it’s been done you know that it CAN be done. And done by you, not merely another human being. Physical growth comes during the period of rest or recovery (period of easy movement) that follows a new stress stimulus. A little faster, a little further, a little higher, a little more resistance, a few more reps, a couple more sets. Choosing one, or a few and agreeing to “go there” is making a decision to improve. You’ve planned to expose yourself to something new. When the moment arrives and you follow through, you’ve just expanded your world. That one small present-moment decision changes everything.
Schedule (plan) these opportunities for yourself to improve. Place them in your schedule often enough to build decision making confidence and success. As always, things take time. These “growth days” are green light opportunities for your mind and body. Understand that your success cannot be rushed. Callouses form with repeated exposure. Revealing yourself to the effort and demand not only callouses the body but it hardens your mind as well. Through this process, you gain the ability to accept more (load, repetition, duration) and in turn, give more the next time.
Personal Story: The year is 2012. One week prior I completed the challenging Leadville Trail Marathon. A 26+ mile run beginning and ending in historic Leadville CO, which sits at over 10,000 ft elevation. Almost two miles high! Living in Albuquerque, at relatively high elevation (5000 ft), the altitude factor was not something I worried about. Having no prior experience with physical effort at altitude, I was soon to find out its effects. The race went surprisingly well. I finished in 6th place out of 500+ runners. Not a bad day on trail by any means. The following week is when the event exacted its revenge on my body. I was exhausted, hungry, and sore… all week long. Knowing I had the 50-mile race a mere two weeks after the marathon, I had to listen to the wants of my system while also looking ahead to the big event on the horizon. Thus, one week after the marathon, and one week before the 50-mile race, I set out to run a 25-mile loop in the Sandia mountains. The idea was to harden up the legs and callous the mind to the effort and elements. You see, Albuquerque in July is hot, windy, and incredibly dry. Often times the forests are closed due to fire danger. Meaning humans are not even allowed to recreate in them. Those three elements (heat, wind, dry climate) are a dangerous combination. Nonetheless, I set off with two water bottles and a few hundred calories of sports drink and energy gel. I chose a route that would take me up the iconic La Luz trail. A rugged, beautiful climb from roughly 6,000 ft elevation to over 10,000 ft in 7-miles. It presents a nice challenge amidst a long loop in the mountains. My plan was to re-supply with water at the top and if my body was not up for that length of a run, to take the tram down, shortening the run from 25-12 miles. Early on in the run, I went to close one of my water bottles by hitting the cap on the bottom of the other bottle. Just as I did this I heard a pop and saw all of my fluids quickly draining out. I had punctured the bottom of the bottle with this action. Now, I was down 16 ounces of fluid and one bottle. Surely I would shorten the run at the tram and cut my losses. I had plenty of fluids to get me to the summit and consumed the calories I had, figuring I may as well keep my energy stores topped off. My spirit was good and legs felt OK. Cresting the summit and reaching the tram I saw a sign posted. Closed due to high winds. Hmmm… that’s not good. At this point, I am almost out of water and calories. With an almost empty bottle of water, 100 calories and a couple of salt tablets on hand I had to make the trek back to the vehicle. The day was beginning to heat up. Add that factor and it was bound to be a character building experience. 90-minutes later I found myself descending a familiar trail, coming to a spot where I had always seen water pooling. It was a spring in the mountainside. Now, I’ve always been cautioned to steer clear of any water coming out of the ground for fear of giardia, which wreaks havoc on your GI system. Undeterred, I stopped at the trail and filled my water bottle. I downed it. Then I cooled my head, arms, and chest with the cool water. It felt amazing. Filling the bottle one more time, I tightened the cap and continued descending. My pace was slow, my steps a little unsure, but my resolve was strong. Mile after mile I kept moving until finally, I broke free from the dense tree cover into the exposed foothills. With close to two miles to go, it was now a full-on assault in the mid-day sun. I finished the run. Exhausted, depleted, yet satisfied. I’d did probably the hardest thing I had ever done in my life up to that point and did it solo. What’s fascinating is that to this day I can pull from this experience and use it to push through difficult endurance events. I did not know what it meant to endure until this moment. A week later I finished the Leadville Silver Rush 50-mile Trail Race. Coming in 10th overall I again exceeded my expectations. As predicted, the race brought many ups and downs. It reinforced the idea that the mind is primary. Once the mind has been exposed to new stressors and overcomes the desire to quit, stop, or feel sorry for itself, your potential is now greater.
How do you know until you know? You don’t. Create opportunities. Adapt to challenges. Broaden your experience. Create new definitions for both your capability and possibility.
Exposure. Environment. Execution. Expectation.