Climbing out of a black hole

No, I’ve not rewritten the laws of Physics. Though, who wouldn’t mind a cheeky Nobel Prize? No, this is about a different sort of black hole.

Last weekend, I did an 18 mile trail race. It’s a distance I have never done before. It was a completely new experience and a big challenge and my sole goal was to run all the way.

We got pelted by hail stones within 5 min of the start, before the weather turned glorious, if a bit blustery, for the rest of the day. Due to the heavy rains, the ground was soggy and slippy, the mud at times calf deep and slushy, the terrain demanding. But I was trotting along quite happily with a big smile on my face, eating and drinking regularly, cheering on other runners.

Until that one moment, where in a split second things went from stellar to hellish. I can exactly pinpoint that moment: my right ankle blocked for an instant, sending a short dull pain through my leg, sending my mind into a downward spiral. I cracked. My legs cramped, I got more desperate with every step, turned into a whimpering mess and eventually walked.

This moment has many names: some call it hitting the wall, a dark place, falling into a black hole, others the man with the hammer, or bonking. However, I make a distinction between bonking and the black hole.

Bonking is a physical reaction. The result of not taking on sufficient nutrition and liquid and as such can fairly easily be avoided: by taking on food and drink regularly once you’ve worked out what ‘regularly’ is to you. Falling into a black hole is, on the whole, a psychological thing. A combination of discomfort, doubt and negativity (but mainly DOUBT). The question is, how do you deal with this?

Chris ‘Macca’ McCormack has a folder in his head with happy memories. Chrissie Wellington has Kipling’s poem “If“, written on her water bottle, others have mantras or inspirational quotes.

The always popular Jens Voigt just tells his legs to shut up and has a whole bike frame listing his achievements and famous quotes. Personally, I’ve got a set of songs in my head that have the perfect run rhythm for me (One way or another by Blondie), The Power (Snap) pipes up if I need a burst of energy, and if all else fails I just imitate a metronome in my head (tap, tap, tap).

So what went wrong? If I have this arsenal of coping mechanisms, why couldn’t I draw on them? The answer is as simple as it is cliché: lack of preparation and practice. I come from a shorter distance background and the methods I have used are geared towards getting me through a 5k or 10k run, or even a 25 mile TT – situations where I know exactly what’s to come. I was not prepared (in terms of knowing the course and what was to come, how far away from the finish I was), nor had I even considered I needed different coping mechanisms for longer distances and thus had not practiced them.

What to do? Simple: prepare and practice. In terms of preparation, find out as much as you can about the race route. Find online maps and elevation profiles, read through forums about the event. If at all possible: recce the route (ride/ run it in advance in little sections, if you have to or drive around). Get to know it, make it your friend.

The other bit of preparation is the mental aspect. Find something that will work for you, to fill your mind with positivity, motivation or aggression. Whether those are happy memories, poems, literature, songs, quotes, staring at your stem or cadence. Try out what works for you. It’s personal, there is no one way. And then practice.

Now endurance events often bring you to the brink of the abyss, but your training shouldn’t. It should only get you to a point that you can see the edge from afar occasionally. However, those are the moments when you want to practice your mental skills, accessing whatever method you have chosen. Mental, like physical skills, need practice and they take time to get them to a functional level so you can access them at the snap of your fingers. Never underestimate the power of your mind.

Did I climb out of the black hole at the trail race? Yes. The secret were my fellow runners, some of whom kindly stuck with me and guided me home. And the flag half a mile from the finish, that magically made my leg cramps disappear and brought a smile back on my face.

It’s all mental!

Don’t forget to come and visit Stolen Goat at the London Bike Show (13-16 February, that’s this weekend!). And also don’t forget to send your comments, reactions and suggestions either on twitter using #askthegoat or on facebook.

Cheerio,
Christine
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