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First Principles: Why the First Thing You Learn About Endurance is Sometimes the Most Important

Early lessons from twenty years ago

When I first started running back in 2005, I was underconfident, untrained, and didn’t know what I didn’t know. I approached every aspect of running as if one slight mistake might mean injury and the end of an only-just-started effort to live a healthier life.

Doing anything remarkable, even by my own then-modest standards, was the farthest thing from my mind. Instead, like a lot of folks who are just embarking on their fitness journey, I chose to focus on what I could celebrate each day. If I set my goal to run a mile and only made it a thousand yards, I asked myself what I had managed to learn in that thousand yards. Was it something about pacing? Lesson learned. Was it something about hydration? Check. Something else? I took note of it and pronounced it a good day.

Meeting someone with similar challenges

Recently I’ve been in communication with the crew chief for a runner whose goal is to run across the US while living with multiple sclerosis.

As it’s been explained to me, MS is, like Type 1 diabetes, a bit of a “hair of the dog” disease: the best way to recover from a bad experience with exercise is to go back out and try again until you figure out what works for you.

For both them and us, exercise can be a good thing if taken in moderation; but push the limits–run too far, too fast, on too hot a day or just with too much effort, and things go south quickly. For Type 1s, it can be sudden hypoglycemia or a stress-related spike in blood sugar that drops perilously when the stress is removed. For MS, it can be numbness, tingling, blurred vision, fatigue, whole-body pain, fever, and more. And those are the MILD symptoms.

Invariably, you’ll have bad days with both diseases. We have a saying among Type 1s that any day you wake up is a good day: it means you didn’t succumb to dead-in-bed syndrome.

My new MS-conscious crew chief friend and I talked about the important of rest, recovery, diet, and sleep for both diseases, especially when endurance exercise was involved. But it’s also about listening to your body. If today’s goal was to make it 43 miles from Kermit to Odessa, TX and you got in only 30 miles, find a way to celebrate the 30. Maybe it was a tough day after all, and trying to “push through the pain” just leads to more pain and possibly, debilitating injury.

Failure and success as states of mind

Some days just surviving is the victory. You went out with big goals, you accomplished some of them, and you got through it.

Which takes us back to first principles.

When I first started exercising, I’d celebrate the little victories. I also had some humbling setbacks: a flat tire on my first half Ironman. A kidney stone on my first attempt at a deca-Ironman. Training runs that ended with a broken heelbone or a broken rib, a swim that ended with a broken foot, a 140.6 triathlon with 2-ft waves at the swim start and one capsized rescue boat, and other efforts that went horribly sour. But there is always something to learn from such efforts. Don’t step into an expansion joint. Don’t kick concrete below water. Don’t swim in water that capsizes rescue vessels. Don’t head out on a half-Ironman without knowing how to change a flat quickly.

Learn what you PERSONALLY are capable of and start there. Don’t set goals based on vague aspirations, but aim in that direction with a plan for what you can do TOMORROW, and keep trying, testing and learning until you become capable of more.

We’re most surprised about negative outcomes when we feel entitled to positive ones regardless of training shortcomings, bad weather, or other factors. Afterward, we ritualistically judge ourselves for “being so stupid”, “reaching too far”, or being arrogant enough to “grab for the gold.”

The biggest problem for endurance athletes isn’t failure. It’s refusing to accept what happened as a chance to learn, regroup, try again, and return better prepared, better trained, and better informed.

So stop thinking of those days as “bad.”

A good bad day…

I was out swimming at the lake this past Monday, the first sunny day in a week of rain and storms. Winds were forecast to be 15-18 mph with gusts in the 20s, on the edge of a “Small Craft Advisory.” It was windy enough that my kayaking buddy, who typically helps me practice with feeds, took a pass on heading out to the lake.

It was a tough swim. I got in 3 miles in the amount of time I should have been able to do 6.

As I was doing my last loop of the route, I noticed a woman slipping into the water with the usual bright orange visibility/tow buoy that most serious open water swimmers use. About 250 yards out, she cut across the inside buoy line, over a potentially entangling cable, and made a quick exit. Everything about it told me she’d run into chop and strong head current and thought better of it. It’s good–and safe–to know when you’ve had enough. It reminded me that it WASN’T pleasant out there. It was a challenging, tiring suck-fest; and I found a little corner of my mind where I could be happy with what I had done: 3 miles swimming in Small Craft Advisory conditions. Level blood sugars. Comfortable body temperature. A little sun on my face when the clouds parted and the wind died down.

For a lot of endurance athletes, it’s easy to forget that some days are harder than others, and that just like when they first started exercising, the little victories count.

They still do.

Perhaps they count even more when you are attempting to do something like crossing the US while living with MS. I know I felt that way during my own US run when it seemed that Type 1 was taunting me and telling me I couldn’t do things because I had to manage this horrible disease that could kill me in my sleep.

I think of my friend’s wife and her transcontinental run, I know that she will have “bad” days. I can’t even imagine what they will be like.

But I sincerely hope she also remembers that those same days are in many ways the “good” days: the days we face adversity, adapt, grow, learn, and emerge stronger.

Those are the days we’re victorious just for getting through it all.