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A Lesson In Not Giving Up

[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]

I thought about giving up a dozen times. I was nauseous, constantly. The air up at 10,000 feet was thin, and growing thinner. I threw up half a dozen times, at least. I cried. I laughed. I experienced moments of deep elation and moments of pure pain. People like to say, "mind over matter," but I'm not sure many of us really know what that means.

At mile 40, I sat at an aid station and contemplated quitting. I even told an aid station worker, "I'm not sure I can do this." Her response was simply, "You can finish, you just don't think you can." In the moment, her words felt untrue, but I knew she was right. I ran down the mountain and back up, scaling a loose, gravel peak on my hands and knees in the dark, fumbling because I hadn't brought poles, because I hadn't trained with poles, because I foolishly thought I wouldn't need them.

Running down the mountain from the mile 40 aid station, I was half-crying, trying to come to terms with another 5 hours of physical pain and mental struggling. A man came up behind me and said, "Rough day out here, huh?" And I laughed at the absurdity of his words. Rough was an understatement, but we were out there nonetheless, fighting against ourselves, and relishing the chance to do so.

I'm not sure there is anything quite like an ultra to test one's physical and mental strength at the same time. A colleague asked me what motivates me to run so far and I don't really know, but I do know that there is no better feeling than proving myself wrong; to think I can't do something and do it anyway. Putting myself in extremely difficult situations makes life interesting and fun.

Probably what motivates me the most is the simple fact that I like a challenge, and our world seems endlessly comfortable. I want to be uncomfortable because that's when I meet myself. That's when I learn what I'm made of. And the same is true for you. Maybe you don't have to run an ultra to see what you're made of, but you better try something you never thought possible, keep at it until you succeed, and fail along the way, or else it maybe wasn't hard enough.

During an ultra, my brain goes through numerous highs and lows, and I wanted to know why our brains are so malleable. Why, in one moment, can my brain feel amazing and in the next, in anguish. Learning to override the part of my brain that wants to slow down or give up is a practice not only in self-discipline but in grit. You can't teach someone mental toughness, and many people avoid developing mental toughness at all. We can all become more mentally tough, but here's why it's difficult.

Our brains dislike discomfort and will do anything to encourage us to avoid it. There is an area of the brain called ventral pallidum (VP) that appears to drive our motivation to seek pleasure or avoid pain. Two specific neurons reside in the ventral pallidum, GABA "reward neurons" and glutamate "punishment neurons." GABA appears to drive pleasure-seeking behavior, while glutamate reinforces the avoidance of pain. In a positive motivational context, GABA neurons may drive physical movements that result in a reward, and glutamate drives movements (or stillness) associated with avoiding pain or punishment.

Our brains aren't weak for wanting to avoid pain. Back in the hunter-gatherer days, the avoidance of pain was a necessary survival mechanism. Our brains want us to live safe, comfortable lives, even if a safe comfortable life isn't exactly what we really want, anymore. The good news is that we can override our propensity to seek comfort. The less good news is that it's really hard. "You can finish, you just don't think you can."

Carla Meijen, a sports psychologist specializing in endurance at St. Mary’s University in London says, “There’s some evidence to suggest that those who compete in ultra-endurance events have a higher pain tolerance. We don’t quite know whether that pain tolerance is the result of pushing yourself and going through all these events or whether it’s something that you have from the start.”

Meijen suggest that during a race, an easy way to circumvent pain is to use distraction. Think about how the end will feel, focus on nutrition, or repeat an uplifting mantra. My mantra is, "You are strong. You are capable. Nothing can bring you down." When I tell myself I'm strong, I tend to believe it.

Of course, the more you practice tolerating pain the easier it will become. Prior to running a marathon, 26 miles seemed daunting. Now, 26 miles is a training run, but developing the physical and mental capacity to run far didn't happen overnight. Like anything, building mental strength takes time, and as last weekend taught me, the capacity of our brains to withstand pain is seemingly endless. I know I'm far from reaching the edge of the pain I'm able to handle, and I'm positive you are, too.

When I finally crossed the finish line, shortly before 2 a.m., I felt a surge of joy alongside overwhelming relief. I thought about how close I was to dropping out, and needless to say I'm glad I didn't. ❤️

P.S. Read more about how to train your brain HERE, and about the psychology of sports performance HERE.


Sarah Rose

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