Dealing with adversity
Let’s talk about adversity, how you react to adversities and unexpected events, and how to thrive we they arrive.
How about a quick look at some common mental dialogues first? Any of this sound familiar when you’re out training and racing?
- “I heard that this is the coldest (or hottest or windiest or wettest or darkest or muddiest) it’s ever been on this course. This just isn’t my year.”
- “There it is again, <insert any old injury> is back. It’s hurting more with each step. I’ve got another major descent ahead and then that massive climb, there’s no way I can make this.
- “If I don’t make it to checkpoint 6 by XX:30, then I’ll definitely miss the cut-off for checkpoint 7. It’s no use trying to push like this.”
- “It’s not worth being injured the rest of the year and that’s what is most likely to happen now.”
- “I screwed up on nutrition and now I’m paying for it. I’m nauseous / bloated / dehydrated / etc. and it usually takes a full night’s sleep to recover from this.”
- “I can’t stay awake. It’s not logical / safe / healthy / wise / etc. to stay awake this long. I just need a short nap, maybe an hour at the next rest stop.”
- “I don’t know why I ever thought this race was so important. It’s a stupid challenge and I shouldn’t have wasted my time on it. Why am I even here?”
There will be discomfort
Ever heard inner dialogue like this? The answer is likely yes, at one level or another. Let’s face it — it’s part of endurance racing and taking on epic challenges. It comes with the territory. Things will go wrong. Equipment will break. The weather will be unpredictable and maybe even lousy. Clothes will never be cool enough or warm enough. Skin will rub, blisters will appear and the body will go through highs and lows. There will be discomfort. That’s what you signed up for, right? Well, it was somewhere in the fine print, at least! And when any or all of these occur, there will be some type of reaction and that reaction can define the difference between a DNF and the most incredible race experience of your life.
So, despite knowing this up front, we often forget the nature of beast during the moment we’re trying to ride the endurance event dragon.
And herein lies the problem: in our optimism for a great race experience and in the heat of the moment, we forget that things may not always go smoothly. We forget that we will be tested in complex ways, sometimes off-script, and that we’ve got an incredible resilience reserve to tap into to get us through these tests. We forget and then we react to the situation in a manner contrary to how we’d like to see ourselves reacting as we sit in the comforts of our homes months before or months after the race. Let’s change that.
Learning from pilots
To sharpen our mental axe, we can look to the skies and consider how airplane pilots address the inherent risks and potential emergency scenarios in flying, where the potential downsides are far worse than in nearly all endurance racing situations!
A few years ago, I had a chance to fly on a small private jet. I was so excited about every moment of the experience. The take-off was awesome, and the luxury of this aircraft hard for me to comprehend, but easy to appreciate. Right after take-off though, the pilot notified us not with the expected message of “sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight,” but that we had an emergency and must land immediately. We sat quietly and watched the pilots handle a series of tasks while putting the plane in a very sharp turn and descending back to the runway. (The photo below captures the moment of announcement–business as usual for these professionals, an “are we about to die” moment for the passengers.)
After we thankfully landed safely, they informed us that the landing was done on one engine — a scenario they train for in a simulator, but had never had to do in a real emergency situation until that day. They followed a checklist for that situation and the landing was perfect. It was impressive to see this approach calmly executed in practice and it’s an approach that I highly recommend for endurance athletes.
|Takeaways for Endurance Athletes
|1. Define and document in checklists the repeatable steps for standard activities (pre-flight inspections, communications taxi, takeoff, approach, landing, etc.). Review and repeat the checklist every time.
|1. Create checklists well in advance for all the basics: items in your backpack, nutrition, pre-race clothes, survival gear, pre-race visualization reminders, travel info, feeling strong and positive during various points of the race, etc. Do this far in advance and you’ll save yourself stress on race day.
|2. Define and document in checklists optimal reactions to emergency situations (stuck landing gear, medical emergency on board, fuel leak, conflicting instrument readings, etc.). Study these and practice them in a simulator.
|2. Think about all scenarios that could threaten your desired race success. Get into brainstorming mode, but don’t allow the exercise to create anxiety. Just note potential situations with gear, your body, the weather, etc. Now, think about and document the best way you can imagine addressing the situation and the most positive outcome.
|3. Commit to constant learning and continuous improvement. As pilots experience new scenarios, they update their knowledgebase, so that all pilots may benefit. In addition, they update their own ability to improvise a solution when a situation occurs that is not on a checklist.
|3. As you expand your race and life experiences, update your checklists and mentally rehearse the new scenarios. Read race reports and other adventure stories; talk to other athletes and take away positive lessons to strengthen your knowledgebase.
Your time investment in each of the above 3 areas will pay dividends on race day. Visualization is a key practice toward strengthening your mind, especially in the second area. Practice these scenarios and conversations with yourself. Play a film of the scenario in your mind and then read the adversity checklist that you’ve prepared. See yourself encountering the challenge and then working through it step by step, toward a positive outcome each time. Put small blocks of visualization time in your training plan well in advance of the race. If you invest time in this area, then you will have significantly reduced the odds of being surprised during the race.
Some uncomfortable events will likely occur, regardless of how well you’ve prepared physically and mentally, but with the calm and professionalism of an experienced pilot, you’ll recall the adversity checklist response, apply it to the situation and thrive as you work through it.
Train hard and enjoy life to its fullest!
— Coach Jeff Grant