Saturday, January 02, 2010

To Endure

Do you ever feel like someone is writing a script for your life, and in the margins they've scribbled little chapter headings or life lessons so that on one particular week you get bombarded with messages for that particular subject? Well, sometimes I do. Or perhaps it's just that once you start noticing something, you see instances of it everywhere, kind of like once you buy a red VW Jetta, you see them everywhere.

This week's theme seems to be endurance: how to have it, or more accurately how to practice it. I like how even the word endure has more than one meaning. It can mean " To carry on through, despite hardships, to bear with tolerance" or alternatively "To continue in existence, to last". Thus when one develops endurance, it affects more than, say, whether they can complete a marathon. I think the effects of endurance can ripple out through one's entire life into corners you might not expect.

I suppose it helps that I finally got around to reading Lance Armstrong's It's Not About The Bike - one of those books I've been meaning to read forever, but I just found a copy at the thrift store for $1 and picked it up. It's pretty much a page-turner if you ask me. Especially the chapters about the Tour de France, or maybe that just marks me as the sports/cycling geek that I am because I couldn't put it down during those parts. And of course the book details his fight with cancer and how that affected both his mental and physical self.

This week at our home gym, which we have named "The Rock", one of the workouts was a 10 kilometer row on the C2 rowing machine. If, like me, you've never rowed seriously hard on one of these human torture devices, it might be difficult to appreciate just what a task a 10k row is. All I can say is that on the day I did it, although it only took about 43 minutes, I later felt like I'd been on a 4 or 5 hour bike ride. It's very taxing and works all major muscle groups.

Some of the folks who are working out with us have never done any endurance sports whatsoever, especially since Crossfit itself is very light on the endurance end of the range, with most workouts lasting no longer than 20 - 30 minutes. Of course for some folks who come from an endurance background, the intensity of Crossfit is the new and challenging thing, so there are workouts to challenge everyone. But this week it's the 10k row that's the bugaboo.

I was watching my friend tackle this difficult workout one day and observed something very interesting. Through the middle of the workout I could just tell she was really suffering. Everything hurt, everything felt bad for her. If you've ever been in the middle of something tough, you know that feeling. But one of my mantras is that while everyone in an intense sport experiences pain, suffering is a choice that we make. Go watch an endurance event and you can pick out who is in pain (everyone) and who is suffering. The difference lies in the specific skill of endurance, the ability to endure. So I was trying to help her find that mental place where you can take yourself so that you're no longer suffering. All of a sudden, I could see it happen, that transformation from suffering to enduring. It was so cool to watch. She just got real focused and for the entire rest of the workout she was in that zone.

Then this Friday, our Master's swimmers gathered to do our annual New Year's swim workout. This year, in honor of 2010, it was 110 x 50 yards on the :45 interval. If you've ever swum intervals, you'll know exactly what that means and how tough it is! If you don't, let's just say it's over an hour and twenty minutes of swimming intensely for 40 seconds and then getting about 5 seconds of rest and doing it all over again 110 times. As you can imagine, to endure such a workout, you need a toolbag of mental tricks. I was employing lots of them - sometimes I use mental math: calculating splits and times and what time we started and when we would end. Sometimes I use mantras, sometimes I focus on my stroke, or my turns or breathing.

Afterwards, I talked with one of the other swimmers and he said that he did each 50 as a Swim Golf. Briefly, that means that you count your strokes, and then you add that number to your time in seconds and your total is your Swim Golf Score. It's a very helpful metric for analyzing the efficiency of your stroke. But what blew me away was that this guy did that for 110 50's!!! Think of the mental and physical discipline that this entails. No wonder he's one of our fastest swimmers. He said he kept them to 61 or 62 each and every time, thus he ensured that his technique did not fall apart as he became more fatigued. If you want to be even more impressed with this, go try a swim golf the next time you hit the pool and you'll see that a swim golf of 62 is a very impressive feat to replicate 110 times.

From my Masters swimming friend to Lance Armstrong, it's clear that really great athletes have the ability to mentally dominate their physical existence, including pain and discomfort. They have a toolbox (either consciously or unconsciously) that is full of techniques that enable them to step away from the realm of suffering and to manage these sensations in a way that keeps them focused. As we head into the New Year, it's worthwhile to think about our own toolbox of mental tricks and see if we can expand on them a bit. The next time we find ourselves in the middle of a sufferfest, maybe we can pull out something new!


Sara Cox Landolt said...

Interesting post! And I've got Lance's book on my reading list, hopefully soon!

I rowed in college & spent lots of time on the erg, it's a great all body workout, definitely! And I know I can always find an open one at the gym.

I like too looking for new mental tips/tricks for long workouts.

Robin said...

I've been reading your blog and decided to comment. I'm actually going to tackle your 10k rowing challenge. Thanks for the great triathlon training advice and tips!

Robin said...

I've been reading your blog and decided to comment. I'm actually going to tackle your 10k rowing challenge. Thanks for the great triathlon training advice and tips!