As I practice various mental skills, doing sport psychological experiments, I do my best to practice what I “preach” to clients in pushing toward potential. In the past year I completed 3 ultramarathons and was very excited by the depth into my own being that those races helped me to explore. That excitement led me to write about the experiences in previous blogs. This time I am writing about not doing an ultra event, making the difficult choice to sit out as a way to enhance my growth.
Three weeks ago, I was in final preparation mode for the next challenge, another 50 miler. I had done long prep runs in the months prior, training goals were checked, my nutrition was finely tuned, and I felt pretty strong for the pending challenge. It’s one thing to choose a limit pushing challenge, it’s quite another to have one imposed.
What I experienced in the last three weeks instead of the final prep for the race was what I will call an “Ultra Emotion-athon.” My Beloved dog was tragically hit by a car and killed in front of me. I LOVED her. So. Much.
Riding the Waves
I assist people with grief. I assist people with depression. I know the signs and symptoms. I know that exercise helps people with both grief and depression. The day the accident happened, I cried and cried like never before. I experienced loss before, but not like this. I felt such sharp emotion it was difficult to breathe. The aftermath of the event was pushing on my limits of emotional pain. Later that day, I made myself go for a run, I cried the whole time as I pictured my pup running with me, pulling me like freight train in her harness as she had in the past. She was good at interval training.
Successive waves of sadness and tears ensued for several days. I did my best to eat, and I did my best to manage my emotions in order to work. I did my breathing exercises, I touched my chest/lungs with my fingertips and made a spreading motion to move the energy of grief. I cried when I felt like crying, I cried hard, I talked about it with my support system. After a week, it was getting a little better with grief management and wave riding.
Over the next 2 weeks, I continued to train, but my energy was far different than it had been prior to the tragedy. My legs felt very heavy, running 6 miles felt like 50 in my body, head, and heart. I kept asking myself, how am I going to run 50 miles if I feel like this during 6? Based on those numbers, 50 miles would feel like 400! Although I was running less mileage, I was doing the emotional work required of an ultra of ultras. Just like an ultra run, I kept being present to the pain one step at a time, without backing away from it by numbing out or quitting. I rescued another puppy to help with the grief.
I struggled in the final week before the race, deciding to do it or not. On the one hand, I thought it might help me process my grief. On the other hand, it might be a way to numb the emotional pain by creating physical pain and I didn’t want to avoid the emotion. Or maybe I’d be overwhelmed by both in such a heightened state. I stayed present to the confusion. I played with the new pup.
The emotional exhaustion I experienced affected me physically. I felt lower energy than usual. Just thinking about eating carb gels, which I usually am ok with, made my stomach turn. In order to complete ultras, one must eat early and often throughout the event. I couldn’t muster the appetite. People usually have to make themselves eat even if not “hungry” during these races, it’s a peculiar experience to expend such high amounts of energy, burning calories like wildfire, but not be hungry. I was struggling just thinking about eating, before the race even started. I also hadn’t been sleeping well at all. So I put a check on the “don’t do it” list.
Spiritually, I struggle with the meaning of the accident and asking the “why” questions that usually have no clear answers. I am searching for some meaningful metaphor. On the mental side, I am experiencing flashbacks and feel the pain in my heart of the event like it is happening again. I know what these symptoms are. I know that they are lessening as time passes. The waves of anguish are slowing down. I continued to train, although with less vigor and constant thoughts of my dog. I continued to pet the new pup.
Movement in Sitting Out
Running 50 miles could be thought of as aggressive. I finally agreed that what I needed most in this time of grief is gentleness. I didn’t force myself to do the race- because I already committed, because I should, because I should prove I can, because I promised, because I’m “copping out” if I don’t, because… I allowed gentleness to take me and I sat out to nurse my emotional wounds. This is a hard decision for any athlete to make. “Sitting out” is, I think, sometimes a bigger challenge than playing through injury. This may be especially true when you make the decision for yourself, rather than a coach/parent/trainer, because then you are the one to “blame” for not performing. Sitting out for physical injury is one thing, but for an emotional or spiritual injury quite another. Will people think I’m weak? Am I?
As athletes, we are given the message to keep going through anything, as if doing that is a measure of how much heart we have, or how much we love the sport. My skating coach used to coax me into practicing past the point of exhaustion and to the point of injury with such shout outs as, “Where is your heart,” “Show me your heart.” My love for skating was not a heartfelt true love of the activity, but I pushed anyway, motivated to keep going, no matter how much my “heart” was in it. My “keep going” was a way to prove something to my coach and to get his approval. Being a “good skater” meant wearing the disguise of painlessness, ignoring bodily signals to stop. I’m aware of this early training, and recognize that at least a part of my fascination with limit pushing was groomed by this. I’m aware of many athletes who experience a similar drive to push through pain, sometimes in helpful ways, sometimes not. Sometimes development is enhanced by deciding to stop and “sit out.”
How do you push your perceived limits? How much does pushing physical limits translate into the ability to push emotional limits? Spiritual limits? It seems that there is a delicate yet strong relationship between suffering physically and mentally (and spiritually). Maybe because my physical strength is something I work at with discipline, enjoying the comfort of discomfort of a long distance run, I am able to handle more emotional or spiritual workload. I keep showing up for “practice.” This time, pushing my limits meant focusing my energy on grief, not on a race. A part of me wanted to make myself run the race, but I chose not to as way to honor the emotional hard work that I was already doing. This time, showing my big heart meant sitting out to lick my wounds with the new pup and grieve.
I recognize that pushing limits is a play between fragility and strength. Sometimes our minds and hearts move where our bodies have trouble following. Sometimes our bodies create openings in our minds and hearts that would not be possible without the physical sensation of exertion. With this latest experience of mine, an Ultra Emotion-athon, I know that sitting (out) with big emotions requires a lot of strength and results in growth. The depth of sadness led me to a wider opening of my heart, and in essence a deeper sense of love. The love I felt for my Beloved dog was the springboard for going deeper into my heart, first through the bond to her and then through loss and pain. The terrible ache in my heart made me stronger yet, greater than but similar to the soreness felt after a really hard run or workout. Life as a coach, has imposed a very difficult “practice session” on me, that had I known what was in store, I may not have shown up that day.
The soreness will fade, but the strength will endure and I will keep being present to my heart and the love there as a way to strengthen it, no matter how much aching is required. I do this in strength training other muscles, I can do it with my heart. Importantly, when muscles are very sore, they need rest. As my heart was very sore, I rested. I sat out of the race, despite my worry that it might mean I am weak. Sometimes the very difficult work of the heart is only done in gentle rest.
For all those who experience love and loss, I hope that you remain present to the depths of your hearts, honoring the balance of sitting out and pushing forward that is necessary to get stronger.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.