Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hitting the Wall - in one way or another

In sport and in Life "Hitting the Wall" is an expression that most of you will have heard. The term is especially popular in Endurance Sport circles. By definition it is " A condition caused by the depletion glycogen stores in the liver and muscles which manifests itself by precipitous fatigue and loss of energy". Glycogen is basically the molecule in your body that functions as the short term energy source. The challenge with Glycogen is that your body can only "Hold" so much for any given period of time (for most people it's about 2000 kcal's). When the Glycogen stores deplete extreme fatigue ensues. Ok, so you might be asking yourself " Why is it important to talk about this and what do energy molecules have to do with my "The 365" program"? Well hold on to your socks cause I am about to tell you.

In 1996 myself and Jim Mandelli (Today Jim is arguably the most successful Canadian adventure racer in history) formed a 4 person coed team to compete in the 1997 Eco-Challenge Expedition Competition (Eco) being held in Queensland Australia. The Eco was the granddaddy of all Extreme and Adventure competitions and in my opinion to this day still is. The Eco is beyond a doubt, the most intense sporting experience that involves human performance, mental strength, acute awareness of the word Team and perhaps most importantly being Committed.

The Eco is not something that you take lightly and for our team that meant many hours on our bikes, on our feet and paddling rivers and oceans trying to maximize our performance and our chances of finishing the race. On one of these "practice" sessions we decided to combine many disciplines into one long and non-stop training session. The plan was to Mt. Bike on and off road for 70k, then lake paddle our double kayaks 32k up the lake, then hike up to the base of Della Falls and then turn around do it all again on the way back to my home. Easy right. Whew, tough stuff let me tell you. Now for those of you reading this and thinking "WHAT THE HECK, this guy was actually doing this for training, like, on purpose". Yes, my team and I put many of these type of weekends together in preparation for our first big race. We needed to. We needed to find out what kind of a team we were. We needed to "put the miles in" to see how our bodies would react. We needed to see how we got along with each other and how we worked as a team or even more importantly how we didn't work as a team. I also LOVED this stuff as it was a pure extension of me and who I am. To this day I am still learning from the experiences I had as an adventure racer.

On this particular "training session" things didn't go quite as planned. Everything was right on schedule up until the point where the lake we were paddling up became frozen. Yup frozen solid just like a skating rink ( I still curse my friend in the Parks Office as I am sure he gave me the wrong information about the state of the lake before we set out). We were probably 11k from the trail head and now had a decision to make. We could turn around and just make it a bike and paddle session or we could put in to shore and start our hike early and navigate from our current point to the trail head. In hindsight, we should have turned around and just made it a bike and paddle training. We mad a bad decision. Not only was the lake frozen but the snow pack was also down to the edges of the lake. Our short 11k hike to the trail head was now an almost impenetrable side-hill hike where every step was post holing (term for when step you take you sink into the snow a couple feet). We made many bad decisions on this hike and at one point we even went down to the lake to walk on it instead of walking in the snow. Kathy, the woman on our team slipped and fell head first into the ice and submerged herself. Gut check time - what do we do now. Here we made a good decision. Stop, get some shelter, get some food in and get warm. We were all suffering from hypothermia at this point and Kathy and our other team mate Omi were definitely at stage 2. So, in the course of getting warm, brewing some tea and eating some food we discussed what to do and decided to turn around, follow our footsteps back to the Kayaks and return home with all due speed. We fuel up our bodies, packed up and off we went. Here is where I return to the whole what does Glycogen have to do with the story bit.

We are now 15k away from my home after hiking out of the woods, paddling back to the bikes and peddling our bikes to this point. I am in the lead breaking the wind with my team mates filed in behind me in single file as we race towards finishing this epic and catastrophic training session. We are all exhausted, cold, hungry and like zombies on our bikes as we have been going non-stop for almost 48hours. I experience something at this point that I have never experienced before in my life and thankfully have never experienced it since. My arms start to go numb, now I don't mean when you hit your funny bone numb, I mean from my shoulders all the way to my hands I actually felt my arms go numb. It was like all of the energy just sort of leaked out. I can only explain it like this - imagine your arms are hollow and filled with water then imagine a leak in your thumb where the water drains out and you feel it drain from your shoulders to your hands-. It was crazy. So here I am trying to mentally put this together when all of a sudden my vision starts to blur. My vision started to go from wide to narrow till soon all I could see was a sliver of what was in front of me. I was so out of it that I couldn't even speak to my team mates, all I could do was focus on not falling down and using what strength I had left to move my bike one rotation closer to home. When we finally made it to my home I didn't have the capacity to get off my bike. I actually rode straight into my garage door and fell off the bike. I couldn't stand, speak or move. My team mates had to help me up and sit me in front of the fire that was going in our living room. My wife wrapped me in a blanket, held a mug of warm tea to my lips and hand fed me hot chocolate chip cookies which she had just finished baking. It was surreal. In a matter of minutes after drinking some tea and eating the cookies I started to come alive again. It was just like someone had plugged the leak in my thumb and I could feel the "water" going back up my arms and my vision went from a sliver to full view. I was amazed. It was a realization for me of how the body works. It really was the first time in my life that I had "Hit the wall". I mean I really HIT THE WALL.

So what does this mean to "The 365" and how can understanding the concept of "Hitting the wall" make a difference to you.

In the story that I shared with you I "hit the wall" hard. I hit it because I didn't do 3 specific things.
  • I didn't nourish my body properly - I simply used more calories than I was putting in. I was burning so many calories trying to keep going and keep warm that the energy stores in my body were completely depleted
  • I didn't pay attention to the subtle clues my mind was telling me - I was getting headaches, my stomach was rumbling, I was dehydrated, I was irritable, I was losing focus, My arms were numb, I was losing the ability to see. All of these things were indicators that my body just wasn't working right. I refused to listen to them and just pushed on trying to will myself to the finish.
  • I didn't communicate to my team mates effectively - I knew even when we first hit the ice that we should have turned around but didn't speak up. I knew we should get some sleep and completely fuel up before starting back out on the bike but I didn't force the issue. I knew I was "Losing It" on my bike but for some unknown reason didn't speak up. I didn't engage my team mates fully in my for success. I let pride, stubbornness and most importantly "Ego" get in the way of my safety and ultimately theirs.
My example is very physical, it is a situation that most people would never find themselves in because not many people enjoy the type of pain that adventure racing provides. Each of us however "Hits the wall" on a daily basis. Can you identify the walls you hit and the reasons why?

Each day most of us "Hit the wall". The degree of pain caused by hitting the wall is different for each person based upon their unique situations, just like each persons "The 365" program will be unique for each person. If you look at the 3 specific things I didn't do which led to my colossal collapse you will find that there are similarities to the ones that you have come up with. Things like basic nutritional concepts, listening to your mind and bodies subtle clues, getting rid of the "Ego" and unrealistic goal setting.

Take some time to identify the "Walls" in your life. Look at what is going on for you when you "Hit" them. What is your physical state, mental state and emotional state? Are there consistencies in when you are "running headfirst in to the brick wall"? Do you repeatedly get over walls but then just have them reappear as BIGGER walls?

I think you will find that even though there may be many "Walls" that appear in your life your reasons for "Hitting the wall" will be relatively few. Identify the reasons and pretty soon the walls might not be as many and definitely not as hard or as high.

As always I welcome any comments and thoughts. If you are finding "The 365" interesting pass me on a note, make a comment and pass on this blog on to others. Spread "The 365 Effect".

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