Monday, July 5, 2010

Jedi Mind Tricks

Confession – I can’t ever remember watching Star Wars. Any of them. I know I grew up with the VHS tapes in our house. I have to have seen them, right? Maybe I should change the title. I don’t feel worthy…but anyway…

When I got my first job in Hollywood, I joked to my boss, “I thrive at tedious, repetitive tasks.” She replied, “You will be good at this job.” Sadly, she was right.

Thankfully, a few years later and a few positions higher, I can reflect on that moment as an insightful one. Because it’s actually true: I do thrive on repetition. Habit. Constant small movements, adjustments and practice that let me hone whatever it is I am trying to achieve.
I was a volleyball player in college – a newbie to the sport, but a four-year setter who now holds a couple school records and has two cardboard cutouts of herself … that’s besides the points… The college track coach approached me my junior year to ask if I’d be interested in some cross-training: The Javelin. Since it simulated the kill swing, he thought it’d make me a better hitter. So I said “Sure.”

My junior and senior springs during college consisted of monotonous, focused work: simulating a javelin throw with a weighted tennis ball. Stance, pause, aim, thrown, hold follow through, retrieve ball. I would do this 200-300 time a day for 5 days a week. Repeat. Repeat Repeat. Cup-Cup-Cup [A reference to In These Girls Hope is a Muscle, a wonderful book]. I had awesome shoulders.

And my repetition paid off with a spot in the track record books and a love for, well, the javelin. Not because it tapped into some primal, hunter-gatherer emotion I had (okay, maybe a little), but because it proved to me that small steps, determination and perseverance really could pay off. If I could learn how to master the awkwardness that is the javelin stance, I could pretty much learn anything else.
The thing that I think endurance athletes have in common is not physical ability, but mental toughness, enough to face each training day, each training season, and embrace it bit-by-bit. On a macro level and on a micro one, we are successful in constantly repeating our behavior.

The macro level is easy to understand. We lay out training plans that exceed 4-5 months. We track our mileage, rest, nutrition and well-being over this time period. We measure the year not by a traditional calendar, but by when our race falls – NYC, Boston, Kona and the others. I will be forever thankful that my involvement in Team in Training, and my own non-TNT pursuits has allowed me to practice this ability – the ability to think long term.

The micro level is a little harder to understand. I was thinking about this when I was swimming today. During each of my swim practices, I count my yards. Each stroke is a number. The first ½ lap is 0-0-2-5, 0-0-2-5, 0-0-2-5. And when I get to the other side and turn around, it becomes 0-0-5-0, 0-0-5-0…etc. I do this up to and through 4,500 yards on long days. The comfort I find in the counting, and the focus I am challenged to maintain is a huge part of my successful outing at CDA. It’s all about concentration.

On the bike, I don’t think miles. I think heart rate. Constantly checking to see if I’m above 130, above 150, below 140 or wherever I am supposed to be. For hours on end I will monitor a single number. How long can I keep my cadence at 90? How much leeway do I allow for hills? On the run – how’s my pace? Consistent? Erratic? It’s a numbers game that keeps me honed in on one particular data set.

And, you know, it’s this gift of focus that has served me well in other parts of my life (jobs, friendships, etc) that I owe to running (and biking and swimming, though I am still new to them). Being able to be mentally tough, to master the Jedi mind tricks with yourself, I have found, comes in handy when staring down an excel sheet, a difficult coworker, or just a long day at the office.

A while ago I re-posted a link, Why Runners Make Good Employees, and its words are the essence of what I have come to value in the endurance community:

You learn a lot about how to break thresholds and get past your own little ego, training for events like these. When you’re tired and sore and hungry but you still have four miles to go, guess what? You still have four miles to go. How you get through these last four miles is entirely up to you. Nobody cares whether you walk those last four miles or run, or hail a cab. Nobody made you set 26.2 miles as a goal. Or 100 miles. Or 144+.

Those who are successful at these sports, they find a way through.

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