My good friend Jon is attempting to make the Olympics in the 1500m next year. He's started a blog on the topic. His second post was about undergoing a day of Navy Seal training and how it took him to his physical and emotional limits. It's a great read, and very inspirational.
It reminded me about the race in which I reached my limits, and the benefits it gave me throughout the rest of my career.
Finding My Limit
My junior season at UCLA, we came down from our summer training camp in Mammoth Lakes, CA and we drove directly to San Diego to run an 8k race. I was in very good shape and had high hopes for the race. Our team implemented a pack strategy wherein we ran together for the first 3 miles, and then finished the race running as fast as we could.
When the race started, our pack didn't get out as well as we wanted and we ended up running a little slower than expected. I have to admit, it still felt fast to my legs having just come down from 8,000 feet. When we hit the 3 mile marker, we were WAY back, somewhere around 100th place. So with a couple other teammates at my side, I took off to catch as many people as I could.
Then, a funny thing happened. People didn't come back to me very quickly. In the next mile I ran hard and passed a lot of guys, but there were still way too many people in front of me. And I was feeling tired. I had to push, though. I was expecting to be one of the top guys in the race.
Over the course of the next mile I just kept passing people. I was getting more and more fatigued but I kept going. Doubt continued to creep into my mind but I blocked it out and kept telling myself to "Go!" Gradually, the pack in front of me thinned and I could only see a string of individual runners ahead of me.
About 600 meters from the end of the race I started getting light-headed. But I figured I was in about 20th place and had to catch at least 10 more guys. So I pushed even harder. I caught three more guys and then I started to black out. The only thing keeping me conscious was the pain, which was bad. I was still at least 200 meters from the finish. One last time I pushed. When I crossed the finish line, I saw black and then realized people were walking me through the chute.
Then the pain really hit. It was different from anything I'd ever felt. It wasn't my chest or my legs. It was coming from everywhere. It emanated from somewhere deep. It was cellular. My head started hammering and I started dry heaving. My knees were at once too painful to move and too wobbly to keep still.
For the next 30 minutes I walked around in a daze as people came up to congratulate me. It turns out I had moved up to 6th place over the final two miles. I couldn't think about that, though. I was struggling just to stay upright and keep moving. Ordinarily I would have done a cooldown, but every time I tried to jog I got light-headed and tunnel vision crept in. I ended up walking for 30 minutes and then I sat under a tree and fell asleep for the duration of the women's race.
Later that day, after we drove back home to LA, I got physically sick. Anything I ate came back up and I literally slept the rest of the day. For two days afterward I felt terrible, with sore muscles, unresponsive legs, and a mild headache.
But that race was the best thing that could have happened to me.
What I Learned
My final time in the race was not particularly fast. I ran 25:50 or so. For that much pain, you would have thought such a time would have actually hurt my self-efficacy. "You hurt that bad running that slow?!" But that's not what happened.
I had reached my limit. I had taken my body to a place it had never felt before, and that became the default against which I judged how I felt in any race afterward. The result: I was able to push myself harder and harder in the middle of races, knowing that until I started feeling like I did that weekend in San Diego, I was going to be just fine. Later during the year, when I was in the PAC-10 Championships and our team passed the 3-mile marker near 30th place, I knew I was going to be able to move up and be successful (I finished 8th). In the District Championships, with an extra 2k in the course, I crossed the 3-mile marker in 70th place and when people started coming back to me, I had the extra confidence of knowing there was another level of pain I would be able to push myself to if necessary. I ended up 10th.
In short, I didn't so much learn how fast I could run in San Diego, but what I could endure. And as the season progressed, I realized that no matter how fast I was running, I never felt as bad as I did that day. And so I was continually able to push myself harder and get better results. I have no doubt that my performance in San Diego was directly responsible for my ability to move up throughout my future races and eventually qualify as an individual for the NCAA Championships. From a statistically average race, I learned the most important lesson for my future success.
You Need to Find Your Limit
In the course of every athlete's training, there comes a time when it's necessary to find your limits. This could be in a race, in a practice (think Quentin Cassady's repeat 400s in Once a Runner), or outside of running altogether. The result is the same in all cases, though. Knowing how much you can really handle puts everything else you do into a different perspective. Quite frankly, it all gets easier.
How are you going to find your limits?