LR10: Mindful Endurance

Barefoot HikingLast week one of the analysts at my firm (20 years younger than me) asked if I was doing the Pier to Peak half marathon 5 days later. Now I can’t explain why I respond in this way, but that isn’t the purpose of this post so it’s irrelevant right now. I answered by saying I didn’t realize it was this weekend, but sure, “why not?” So I immediately signed up (after checking “my” schedule with my wife). That was it. Five days later I would be participating in the 5th toughest half-marathon in the world.

Forget that my only exercise over the past several months had been barefoot hiking, so my cardio was even more limited than usual. Not to mention that I am still at the stage where my feet are breaking down so that they can toughen up. Every hike results in the soles of my feet getting a little bruised, the pads getting burned or scraped, and a toe or two getting beaten up. Ultimately, the goal of barefoot hiking is to slow my pace down, to allow me to be more mindful of where I am, not to get in shape. That is great, unless you decide to participate in a grueling endurance race.

P2P StartThe day before the race I was feeling antsy and needed to get out for a hike, so I did a 5 mile barefoot hike to the site of the yarn bomb. It was a nice cool day, so my soles didn’t burn, but I did manage to find lots of small, sharp pebbles to poke into the soft parts of my feet and create tiny polka dots of bruising. I would come to regret that hike less than 24 hours later.

Saturday morning at 6:30am, I lined up along side 371 other nut jobs to run 13.15 miles from the Santa Barbara pier to the lookout tower atop La Cumbre Peak, roughly 5,000 feet higher than the start. The course is rated a Cat 1 Climb, the steepest grade on a scale of 1 to 5, only to be outdone by what is called the “Hors Categorie”.

By mile 6, I was already questioning the intelligence of the decision to participate without any preparation. I hadn’t even thought through the right shoes to wear and the hot spots were beginning to develop.

P2P Mile 8By mile 8 my feet were in agony. Every step was pressing on the bruises and the thick padding that’s been developing across the balls of my feet felt like they were beginning to separate from my foot. I feared they would break away, leaving a very large, raw, open wound in a most crucial spot.

P2P Mile 11At mile 10.5, Gibraltar Road finally meets Camino Cielo, where I had expected the trail would turn left, leaving the majority of the remaining distance to be somewhat flat. I was wrong. They turned us right for a grueling half mile psych out that climbs up and around several blind corners. You know that every step you take will at some point need to be retraced, but you can’t see how far it is to the turnaround. Every runner coming back assures you “it’s just another 200 yards,” but only one of them is correct. My hamstrings are so tight, I can imagine just the slightest misstep will cause one or both to snap. My feet are on fire and I can no longer feel the three smallest toes on my left foot.

Finally, I reach the turnaround and head downhill for the first time since we started. I thought it would be a relief, but it made it even worse on my feet as they were mashed into the front of my shoe with ever step. The three little piggies on my right foot mentally disappeared as well. My mind was clear, I felt great cardio-wise, but my legs were shot and my feet, well, I don’t know how to describe the anguish they were causing me in those shoes. Uphill, downhill, it didn’t really matter. I just needed to get off of them and out of those shoes.

P2P Mile 11.5As I faced the final 1.65 miles, I recalled why I was there in the first place. It wasn’t a moment to escape, but a moment to revel in. This was the moment to become mindful of the anguish, to breath in the fresh air, to appreciate when my feet feel good and my legs are powerful. This was a highlight in my life, not a lowpoint. I wanted to experience every ounce of pain, for it was the extremity of the pain and anguish itself that made that moment stand out from all the mindless, petty stuff that takes up the majority of our lives. This, was a break from the mundane. This, was living and I wanted to wring every drop out of it. While I heard others complaining about the heat, I was mindful of even the slightest breeze and felt cool. I saw the steep climb that lie ahead and wished it were steeper. I knew that physically I was tapped out, but mentally I was gassed up and ready to go. In my head I was running at full speed, but to anyone witnessing my actions in the real world, I was barely giving the tortoise a run for his money.

P2P FinishAt the finish, I just wanted to grab my shirt, get on the bus and take off my shoes. During the party bus ride back down, it dawned on me that this was my first endurance event since becoming a vegan. I felt better aerobically than ever before, probably a result of the 13 pounds I’ve lost and the reduction of body fat by 33%. What I found most interesting is that normally after completing an event like that I have a mad craving for steak, but this time I simply craved calories. I thought it odd, because cravings are not a conscious choice. The fact that I had absolutely no interest in ingesting meat after this race, tells me I have accomplished Learning Resolution 7: Eat Right (Vegan).

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LR10: Drilling for Mindfulness

Nothing, and I mean nothing, brings you into the moment like extreme pain. Actually the moment you realize with absolute certainty that its arrival is impending, now that is the moment of maximum mindfulness.

BeforeAt the risk of losing those of you who were on the fence about my sanity, I share this experience. A few weeks ago a piece of my tooth broke off. It’s a tooth with a very large old mercury filling. Today I went to the dentist to have the old filling removed and prep work (drilling) done for a new crown.

The dental hygienist led me to the chair saying, “I’ll take care of numbing you first.” Her jaw dropped when I told her I don’t get numbed for dental work. Just then, the dental assistant walked in and said, “Oh, right, Stephen doesn’t get numbed.”

I started getting dental work without any anesthesia or novacaine about 10 years ago. You see I hate that annoying numb feeling that stays with you long after visiting the dentist and even more, I hate all the shots in the gums. One visit, it dawned on me that I didn’t have to be numbed. It’s my right to do without it. That first time, when I had a cavity filled without any anesthetic, my senses were heightened beyond belief. I think the dentist was as nervous as me, too. He was worried I would flinch if he touched a nerve, which would have created a real problem for both of us. He gave me the warnings, then set up a signal I should use if I couldn’t take it any more.

In the ChairI won’t lie, it hurt like hell. The endorphins started to flow and that’s when it happened. I recalled a story about Dale Earnhardt, when during a race, he began snoring over his radio and his pit crew had to verbally wake him up. His ability to maintain calm to the point of sleep, even under the most extreme duress, earned him the nickname, The Intimidator. Some people are challenged by marathons. I am challenged to maintain calm under extreme physical duress. This was my Ironman triathlon.

I close my eyes and focus on every breath. I try to get a fix on my heartbeat and then physically slow it down with my mind. I visualize the instruments being used, how the tooth is being transformed and most of all, I create a mental image of the nerves. As they are sparked, I imagine something like a laser being shot from the end that was triggered up to my brain. By visualizing what is happening, I feel a sense of control over it. It’s difficult to describe, but it converts the pain from a feeling into something tangible, which is observed rather than experienced. (Is any of this making sense?)

AfterAnyway, since that time, I have had a tooth pulled, two root canals and many old fillings replaced, all without anesthesia and today was no different. At one point, the dentist used some kind of water/laser gadget that works like a drill but instead of spinning, it pounds away at the target. It turns out I have a cavity in the tooth next to where he was working and while trying to take care of it too, he bore through a good chunk of my gums as well (see picture). I saw colors and felt the pain radiate from every nerve in my body, but I never flinched. The assistants both even commented on how they were watching my hands to see if I was clenching my fists, but they saw no sign of anguish. I was focused on my heartbeat and breathing. I was aware of the pain, but I was merely witnessing it. It can’t be ignored and you can’t avoid it. I felt every bit of it, but it didn’t matter.

When he was finished, I was good as new. No numbness or pain. I said to the dentist and his assistants, “I can’t be the only patient who comes to you who does without anesthesia.” They all thought and looked at each other before answering, “Actually, you are.”

LR10: Barefoot Hiking

Sandstone

The goal for LR10: Mindfulness is to learn to live more in the moment, to strip life down to its essence. To get rid of the nonsense, and truly experience what I normally take for granted.

Becoming a vegan is perhaps the purest, most consistent way for me to be more mindful for it forces me to think about everything I take in. There is no drive thru for a vegan. When you’re at a party you can’t just grab a handful of whatever is put in front of you. You have conversations with the creators of your food, the chef. I think through the menu before making a reservation. I call days in advance to chat with the chef about possible dishes. It has made me more mindful of the chef’s part in my meal. Every meal has become more intimate for me.

Spiked Oak Leaves, Sticks and RocksLast year, I broke with my long held tradition of not running unless someone was chasing me. After reading Born to Run (my favorite book from a previous resolution to read 50 books in a year), I developed an interest in running. It started with weekly 5k’s, then a half marathon, a sprint triathlon and finally an ultramarathon. I bought a GPS watch, started tracking my trail runs and competing against my best times. Instead of enjoying my time in the mountains, just Stella and me, taking in the scenery, breathing in the air and sorting through my thoughts, I was focused and concentrated. It took all the joy out of hiking.

Sharp, annoying little rocksI wanted to return to my old ways, but it’s hard to break a habit. In fact, it requires extreme measures at times to break a habit, even one as simple as not running when you go for a hike. My solution? Go barefoot.

You see, running barefoot hurts. These aren’t asphalt surfaces, they are trails of spiked oak leaves, lined with poison oak, populated by rattlesnakes, with lots of sticks, sharp Atop Saddlerock Trailrocks, hot sand and tons of sandstone, which is like walking on sandpaper, not to mention the occasional dog poop. When you hike in big hiking boots or even trail runners, nothing fazes you. Water, rocks, poison oak, even snakes are of little concern. Hiking barefoot, on the other hand, requires you to be aware of every hazard including the threat of a stubbed toe. Essentially, it forces you to be mindful of your environment, to be aware of everything directly in front of you. Everything else is a distraction.

LR10: Mindfulness

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Random Karmic DroppingsBefore I explain what this Learning Resolution is about, it may be helpful for you to know a few things about me, particularly as it relates to this topic. I am contemplative and introspective by nature. Well, the term “by nature” is really a cop out, so I’ll go a bit deeper. These character traits are driven by the combination of an insatiable curiosity and my absolute disdain for hypocrisy.

That hatred for hypocrisy forces me to always question my own motives, perspectives, tendencies and biases, before passing judgment on those of others. It demands contemplation and introspection, but they must be balanced and unbiased in order to offer true value. I am constantly working to improve my process. In fact, these resolutions are themselves part of that effort. But there is a problem.

Many people who have had a heart attack, follow their doctor’s orders immediately after, but as time goes by, revert back to their old ways. We all know, or perhaps we are, those people who swore to the porcelain god that they would never drink that much again, only to one up themselves a week later. The point is,┬áthere are moments where we achieve clarity, or what I define as “right mindedness”. The problem I eluded to is that those moments are fleeting. Life tends to interfere.

We get caught up in firefighting. Our ego takes over. Anger clouds our judgment. Fear consumes us. Whatever it is at a given moment, we tend to gravitate away from the right state of mind. Occasionally, something beyond our control snaps us out of that funk and brings us back to right mindedness. It’s always a life altering event like a child moving away, tying the knot, divorce, a new baby, but the most jarring events involve someone’s health. You hear things like, “it really puts things in perspective” or “at a time like this, you really appreciate what you have.”

This resolution is an attempt to learn how to maintain that kind of clarity at all times, to always appreciate what I have, who I have, and where I am, but also appreciate what affect my actions have on my clarity, and on the world around me.

P.S. I had been considering “mindfulness” as a resolution for some time, but a recent event got ┬áme to pull the trigger today. I eluded to it on Facebook today.

“This week I had a pretty traumatic health scare, which had me contemplating my imminent death. Two things became crystal clear to me. 1) No matter what we think, we don’t actually live everyday like it’s our last. 2) If we are about to die, what’s the point in jumping out of an airplane, reading the great American novel or anything else that heaps on a new experience, since the memory of it will die with us. Instead, every last second should be intended to improve the lives of those who will continue on in our absence. So next time you think, “screw it, I’m going to live like it’s my last day on earth,” don’t spend lavishly on yourself or drink yourself into oblivion, instead do something nice for someone else. Be absolutely and completely selfless.”

LR 10: Mindfulness Posts