In Search of a Limit: Part 2

Part 1 of this post discusses a physiological feeling that arises in my chest on long runs that is a seemingly-limitless source of energy. This post explains a personal search for that limit by entering a 100-mile race.

———

I signed up for the Lighthouse 100 on April 16th and called on the help of two friends to crew me during the race on June 1st. A few weeks prior to the race, I was hanging out with one of them and his girlfriend. While discussing the upcoming race, my friend’s girlfriend asked me a question that caught me off-guard: “Are you hoping to fail?” I didn’t know how to answer at first. It’s easy to assume that the answer to that question only has two letters. After all, who wants to fail? But that’s what struck me: I did.

Failing gives us an excuse to give up when life gets hard. It’s acceptable to throw our hands up and say, “Oh well,” when we try and still don’t succeed. On the same note, it’d be ‘easiest’ if my body shut down on mile 70 of the race, excusing me from running through an additional 30 miles of pain.

“Yeah, I guess that is what I want.”

It’s important to emphasize that wanting to fail is different than wanting to quit. If I wanted to quit, I wouldn’t have started the race. I was confident that the desire to explore new psychological territory would triumph over the urge to quit when such an urge inevitably arose during the race. Moreover, I made it clear to the two friends accompanying me that I wasn’t allowed to quit as long as my body was still capable of moving forward. Consciously, I wanted to fail because I wanted to discover which came first: a psychological or physical limit. Subconsciously, I wanted to fail because encountering a literally insurmountable obstacle would justify avoiding any future confrontations with the discomfort that comes with finding how much discomfort we can tolerate until our body or brain can no longer function. Saying I wanted to fail is the same as saying that I wanted to find my limit, and I subconsciously hoped that this limit would come at a time before the most painful miles of the race. Still, I did not want to quit.

After a few more weeks of excitement and anxiety, it was time to put my thoughts to the test. I trusted that if I could make it to mile 8 that my mind would get into the proper head-space to carry me throughout the race. In other words, I knew that a source of energy would arise in my chest, and I hoped to ride that energy for a long time. The purpose of the race was to see how long I could ride that wave energy, and what happens if I keep going if/when it weakens. Will that energy persist throughout the race? Does it come and go? If it does go, does it come back? All such questions are relevant to general life in addition to extreme physical endeavors. Spending even a little time with meditation demonstrates just how often our thoughts and emotions change throughout a given day, often without any reason or warning. The mind does not inhabit one single head-space during a 24-hour period.

The first thirty-five miles went as well as one could have hoped for; I was in a good physical and mental space. However, the mind hit a roadblock at mile 35. I laid down in the back of our car to rest, feeling impossibly tired and disoriented. The mind was flooded with thoughts about quitting. Despite my mental and physical exhaustion, they didn’t feel like my thoughts or my mind. They were just a natural consequence of the mind trying to avoid future pain on way to find my limit. While the mind was rattling off its negative thoughts, I closed my eyes and observed the negative thoughts as they flowed through my mind. They weren’t stopping and trying to stop them would have been a lost cause. Instead, I remembered that this is what I wanted out of the race. I wanted to see who I am when I keep going despite the ego’s best efforts to protect itself from the pain of realizing that it is not as complete and strong as it builds itself up to be. I chuckled to myself and went to an often-forgotten place in the mind. I thought to myself, “Who else would even think about going back into the race after being this f*cked up?” This question was rooted in both motivation and curiosity. 99% of the time people will after one or two waves of failure or resistance. That attitude can easily wear off on us. It’s inspiring to think that one can be in the top 1% of anything if you just don’t stop until you have reached that point. In this sense, the question was used as a inspirational ploy to get myself out of the car and back onto the road.

However, the question was also directed at myself. It’s not that almost everyone is a quitter but that people will quit prematurely when things get hard almost all of the time. Way too often we find ways to shirk genuine effort when met with unanticipated difficulty. Everyone knows this subconsciously, and it is most apparent in consciousness than when the mind is desperately trying to escape extreme discomfort. Discovering what lies beyond those moments of discomfort was why I started the race. Thus, the question I mentally asked myself was also rooted in genuine curiosity about myself; I genuinely wanted to discover the version of me that just keeps going when every psychological impulse is telling me to stay in the car.

I eventually got back onto the road. The rest of the race was by no means smooth sailing after that point, but I had a better understanding of the mind’s very real approaches to avoiding future discomfort. I was better equipped when the next few bouts of psychological and physiological torment came about. At mile 50, my head was spinning as it never had before and merely standing up made me feel sick. Ten miles later, it felt like my natural thermostat had broken. My hips were on fire while the rest of my body felt as though ice water flowed through the space usually reserved for warm blood.  (The only time I was genuinely scared of what my body was going through was when my hips were torched and teeth were chattering at the same time in 60-degree weather.)

But I could still move forward, and so I did. And like every other time that physiological discomfort arose, physical discomfort soon gave way to more tolerable states. There were easier times too, times during which the internal chatter of the mind was prematurely eager about finishing the race. Such waves of emotion came and went unpredictably, with peaks of blissful elation sharply followed by troughs of all-out exhaustion without any notice. The randomness of these changes forced me to acknowledge that the mindset of the moment is fleeting and thus cannot be considered an accurate gauge for whether I could continue in the race. The only trustworthy gauge was my legs’ capacity to take another step forward.

After grinding through a rough patch at miles 85-89 at God knows when in the morning, something in my brain clicked at the mile 91 checkpoint. My speed increased as I approached the finish line, and I ran the remaining nine miles in under an hour at a 6.5 min/mile pace. No I didn’t. But that would’ve been sick.  My speed did pick up a bit though, and I finished the race in 23 hours and 42 minutes.

My brain was at peak focus during the final nine miles despite having been awake for more than 24 hours.  I walked most of the final mile and sunk into reflection of everything that went into those hours: my friends’ indescribable support; extreme physical discomfort and even more extreme psychological discomfort; deep meditation.

I did not fail. Something infinitely better happened instead: I did something I didn’t know was possible.  I started this article by describing how a friend’s question prior to the event exposed a subconscious desire to fail in the race. Her question surprised me at the time, but it also helped clarify that the purpose of participating in the race was to genuinely pursue my limit.

———

A few weeks after the race, I hung out with my friend and his girlfriend for the first time since race day. We recapped the race a bit, and my friend, proving that he and his girlfriend are a good match, said something that floored me in the same manner as his girlfriend’s question prior to the race. As we discussed personal limits, he said, “If the race was 150 miles instead of 100, you would’ve found a way to finish that too. You were nowhere near your limit.” He’s right. I’ll keep searching.

Noah GreensweigComment