Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Meta Cognitive Runner

In whatever distances we race, train, or play we can all identify with having highs and lows. Times when we feel light, fast, and energetic, and times when all we want is to quit. Times when simply getting one foot in front of the other is a huge achievement. Knowing this, wouldn't it be insightful for each of us to have a transcript of all our inner monologue during the course of a race? Sure, some folks might be disturbed by some of their thoughts, but I think primarily we'd recognize which thoughts were empowering us to create highs and which ones were counter to us achieving our goals and creating lows.

I bring this up because I found myself quite mindful of my personal thoughts during last Saturdays Orcas Island 50 K. It's challenging to be fully mindful throughout an entire event, but I mostly was for the entire 5:18. I think we call this meta cognition - thinking about what we are thinking, like Kermit in the bow tie here.

Orcas Island
Standing out behind the main hall at 8:30 am I was immediately aware of my thoughts regarding people around me. Who's fast? Can I get around these people? I'm cold. I hope I ate enough or not too much.

When the RD, James Varner, shouted "GO!", we were off and the jockeying for position began. I had to keep reminding myself not to get stressed about getting hung up behind people...especially Duncan. For some reason his whereabouts was on my mind for a lot of the race, even in the first five minutes. With all this stress about ceding myself properly I recognized that I was not enjoying the loamy turf underfoot and I looked up left to see a cascading waterfall that led into the creek I was crossing. Recognizing my new sense of calm and settled breathing, I put my head down again, but kept an eye out for the orange flagging tape stuck between the various vibrant mosses and downed trees. Rolling into my first decent I recognized a tightness in my quads and eased off. I immediately started to wonder about the climbs and decents that would come later. Could I handle them if I was already feeling this at mile 4? Becoming aware of this negative train of thought, I shouted out to the women in front of me, "fun downhill, huh?" She turned back and a terrific, easy-flowing conversation began as we yo-yoed back and forth to the top of Mt. Picket and down the logging road to the 11 mile aid station at Camp Moran. I knew in my mind the favor she had done for me in simply talking to me and allowing me to keep light and otherwise occupied from muscle tension and mental breakdown. Smooth as it was I continually looked over my shoulder for Coo. I knew he'd be there and likely had me in his sights without my knowing. I let it bother me and when I saw him coming into the 11 mile aid station my mind raced. The only thing to do was cheer him on and high five him. There was a 200 meter gap at this point and he would be doing all he could to close it up. Mindfully, I dropped my shoulders, eased my breathing, ate well and kept my pace so I would survive the remaining 20 miles.

Filled up on Nuun and pockets full of Guu, my brains knew Coo was just behind me and that he would try to catch up before or on the calf searing powerline climb. He later admitted he did. This climb could've ruined my race had I not been mindful of my reaction to Coo's presence. Shoulder check after shoulder check I had to tell myself to slow down. There were still two long descents to go and a killer climb up Mount Constitution. Up top, I sucked back a gel and off I went. I actually felt the relief I needed by running. Just knowing that helps a ton. And using language that is positive toward that helped to get moving again. I was realizing how easy the run was becoming as my attitude and spirit were positive. What really set this off was ironically the fart of another racer. We had such a laugh of it we couldn't help but feel great. That's not to say it didn't stink, but it lightened the mood and the laughter was brilliant. At that point the farter and I came upon the lake junction where several others had gone the wrong way and ended up being disqualified. The terrain here flattens out and this is what I trained for. Keeping that in mind, I cruised around the lake in great mental shape with a bit of a mantra for perpetual easy motion. Pace, Pace, Pace.

The lowest point in my race was the beginning of the Constitution climb. This was a survival section for me. My legs were dead weights, but moving, and my brain was looking for ways to be occupied. I tried to remember last year so I knew how far I had to go and at that point realized it would benefit more to engage in the place I was Running now. Once I started to look around again and stop thinking of all I still had to achieve, things fell into place.

At the 3:57 marker I was chowing down at the Constitution aid station (picture left) and heading back out again. The final 8 miles were a killer on the quads, as the descent back to Cascade Lake must have been 3 miles long, but I was totally present and aware of the thoughts that were making the run difficult. Over those last few miles I managed to get by 5 racers to only be passed by 1.

It was a tough 5:18 on some of the most perfect running and cycling trails in the Pacific Northwest. I was definitely more prepared this year as I shaved off 30 minutes from last years time. What you might have guessed from this report however, is that I had some kind of an epiphany regarding the thinking I do when I race. The most important thing to me was how much mental control I had over how I felt. The challenge is recognizing which thoughts are defeating and which thoughts are empowering. The easy thing to do is run until your sore and then survive. If we can recognize what triggers that mental awareness of soreness and suffering we should be able to think it away before it arrives. To some extent at least. Maybe this is exactly what a good mantra is for? To mantain positive thinking and more importantly force away negative thinking. As in yoga or meditation, being present is key.

Maybe my mantra is RUN NOW!


  1. Excellent. Hope you don't mind if I link to your post. I love what you have to say here. What an amazing feeling it is to be in the moment and know that you know that you are in that moment...

  2. Absolutely, Sean. Post it as you like. It sounds like you can identify with the feeling. It really is cool isn't it? Nothing else going on in the noggin but runnin'.

  3. good philosophy ... a true jedi you are. use the force you do! try it next i will..


  4. 要求適合自己的愛情方式,是會得到更多,還是會錯過一個真正愛你的人。..................................................

  5. how right you are Monsieur.
    CHEERS to a wicked season!

  6. Loved this race report! This is a race that is on my bucket list of races once I have the mileage built up...probably a few years out still, but so much fun to read about others who have run it.