The Other Side of the Buckle

Sure it’s a cool buckle, but there’s more to it than the physical feat it represents.

At the beginning of this year, I made an effort to document my physical and mental experiences while training for and completing one of the toughest endurance races in the world, the Fat Dog 120 mile ultra marathon. My intention was to provide a little taste of the ultra running world to those unfamiliar, as well as show how this relates in a more tangible way to the struggles that mental health sufferers go through on a daily basis.

Part of this initiative involved raising funds for the Calgary branch of CMHA and help bringing awareness to these prevalent mental health issues that so many people face. Even people such as myself, who may come across as superhuman when it comes to physical feats, have their own internal kryptonite – and that’s okay.

I have received some wonderfully positive feedback on my fat dog race report along with other posts I’ve made, which reaffirms that I have had an impact on mental health awareness.  Perhaps I’ve even given a few people an appreciation or understanding of why we ultra runners endure these punishing events. It’s okay if you still think I’m crazy for running these distances – in a sense, isn’t it fitting?

In the end, there is still much to talk about regarding the mental aspects of what went on during Fat Dog and what’s been going through my head since. Anyone who has completed a race like this will tell you that the mind is really where success comes from in these races; if you aren’t mentally prepared, you will fail.  My race report doesn’t really tell the story of how I was able to complete the race – that’s what you’ll find here.

I want to start at the end. Only now am I starting to come to terms with how I felt throughout the race and recovery.  Most people whom I talked to after the race gave me responses along the lines of:

You must feel so accomplished!

Congrats! You must be so proud!

How amazing do you feel right now?!?!?

Truth is, the only thing that I felt after the race for a good two weeks was embarrassment. Seven weeks have now gone by since the race and I’m still not exactly sure why this emotion was so prevalent.  All my hard work, perseverance, and success was overshadowed by all the little things during the race that may have been preventable. Just as in a final exam where you come to a question that you forgot to study, I knew these little hiccups could have been dealt with more effectively with just a bit more directed focus during training. Every little situation that went wrong felt like a devastating blow to all the training and preparation that I had done. I was absolutely humbled by this race.

10 hour training runs? No problem.  Too bad you can’t get through 4 hours of the race without issues!

Oh, and all that food you trained with that goes down so well? Ya, that’s gonna be gross. Why’d you even bother?

Heat training? Don’t worry about that because you’ll have electrolyte issues anyway!

Was this a huge accomplishment?  Of course.  Am I completely satisfied with the result?  Absolutely.  Then why was this feeling of embarrassment so strong? Great question!

I don’t know.

Will I ever understand this?  Likely not.

But, in a way it’s fitting.  When I’m depressed, or when anyone is suffering from an episode of mental health issues, there’s usually no apparent reason it’s happening. Maybe next race I’ll be ecstatic from the result. Maybe not.  And that’s okay.  Looking back, I’m not necessarily focused on the result, but what got me there. The roller coaster of training is more than exciting enough. This season I had to overcome a severe ankle sprain that occurred two months out from race day. These experiences aren’t set-backs, they are challenges that make the journey that much more satisfying when all is said and done.

So how did I persevere through such a gruelling task? There were only a small handful of times where I wasn’t actively pushing my capabilities through the entire 36 hours and 44 minutes I was on course.  How is that possible?

The answer: Mental Momentum.

A race as daunting as Fat Dog requires a HUGE amount of willpower.  Even those of us with this level of physical fitness and mental fortitude aren’t able to just decide one day to run 120 miles. For me, this took months to train and create the mindset I required to have even a remote shot at completing the beast.  Even then, focusing on running the entire 120 miles with elevation change greater than sea level to Everest and back is too big of a challenge for many of the toughest of runners. If the challenge is too daunting right off the bat, you will have a tough time even attempting the feat. To successfully run these big races, the only thought at any given point should be what is right in front of you. How long until the next aid station? Likely this is a 1 to 2 hour period of focus.  MUCH more manageable than considering the entire 120 miles of the race.

Consider this analogy. Everyone has a mental snowball being built in our minds when faced with a challenge.  Our goal is to roll that snowball to a certain size (in this case, running 120 miles) and what we don’t know for sure is if we are mentally strong enough to build it to the chosen size. I, for one, DO NOT want to roll the entire snowball for all 120 miles.  So, I’m going to start out with a handful of snow and begin rolling a more reasonably sized snowball to lessen the burden. For Fat Dog, this meant only thinking about the upcoming hour or two of running.

Through the race, this snowball got larger and larger as I ran along the course, becoming heavier and heavier. Thankfully, when things were going well, I had built up enough momentum with my snowball to cruise over some bumps along the way and keep it going with little mental effort. But, when I started focusing on those little bumps – say, the hot weather or a blister on my foot – they became bigger and the mental momentum slowed down.  Or, if I started thinking about how daunting the rest of the race would be, the snowball picked up snow too quickly and made it harder to maintain momentum.

The more miles I covered, the bigger this mental snowball became. This helped and hindered my progress towards finishing.  Thinking about everything I had already accomplished gave me huge boosts in momentum, allowing this giant snowball to plow right over top of any bumps along the way. It felt like my snowball was rolling down a hill requiring very little mental effort.  At these points, my mental snowball was gaining momentum all on its own.

When the low points came towards the end of the race, my snowball was so big that it took every ounce of my mental strength to keep it from stopping.  Once the snowball stops at this enormous size, it stops for good.  At 105 miles in, halfway up the last big climb of the race, the snowball’s slope had turned uphill and was almost too much for me to push forward.  The little bumps along the way became insurmountable and were near impossible to push through. Thankfully, I had the help of friends along the way to show me that I didn’t necessarily need to push my snowball over these bumps – I could push it around them.  In those late stages of the race, my mental focus was 100% on the task immediately at hand and I needed someone else to show me that there were ways to get my snowball up the hill.  I may have needed to push it on my own, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t have someone help me direct its path.

Overall, the focus was to keep my snowball moving by whatever means possible. If I had truly thought about quitting at any point during the race, that snowball would have stopped dead in its tracks and my mind would no longer have been able to force my body to keep moving forward. What I’ve learned, through my experience and others that also ran this race, is that we are capable of moving a much larger and more daunting snowball than you could ever imagine.

I’ve found this mental momentum analogy works quite well with mental health struggles as well.  Those of us that are affected by depression, anxiety, or many other issues, we seem to be pushing around mental snowballs that are bigger than the average person’s. Because of this, we can fatigue on tasks much quicker than others when we aren’t feeling 100%, or may simply not have the required mental strength to begin a task altogether.  That initial start from rest is always the toughest.  The more we think about a task, the bigger this snowball can become without doing anything at all. We can start focusing on the little bumps along the way which can grow into giant walls.

This is why support from friends, families, and coworkers can be such an important aspect of managing mental health challenges.  We can sometimes get caught up in the finer details of tasks or situations and need a helping hand to show us the bigger picture. Or, our emotions (or lack thereof) can make us think there are huge hurdles behind our snowballs, but it takes a caring and trustworthy friend to convince us that there isn’t actually anything in the way.

Thanks to everyone who has supported me through this endeavour and an extra special appreciation goes out to everyone who made a donation to CMHA-Calgary. I have had tremendous feedback and support from some expected and unexpected places, which I am very grateful for.  Hopefully some light has been shed on the challenges we face with mental health illnesses and will provide an opportunity for each of us to be a part of a greater support system.

Happy Trails!

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