Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Finding Chuck 50

I've been doing much soul searching these past few weeks as I've resolved to improve my mental running game.  I have been consistently giving myself an out in workouts when the going gets tough and have been allowing myself to take "water breaks" just when I need to really dig deep.  After the Buffalo Stampede this weekend, I was talking with The Genius about his race and asked when in the race his legs started to feel heavy, like he was struggling to hold his pace.  He said, "Around mile 6 or so."  That's exactly when I felt that sensation.  He knew that this feeling meant that he needed to dig deep and push harder which resulted in him maintaining his pace.  For me, it signaled that something was wrong and that I needed to back off or I might not finish.  If this had been a workout, I would have stopped for a water break at that point.

According to the mind training information I've read, in order to resolve this problem, I first need to figure out why I do this.  Is it that I am just a wimp and afraid to experience that kind of pain?  Am I simply not fit enough to hold the pace?  I thought about this on my easy run last night and channeled a younger, fearless me to help shed light on these questions.

In July 1988, I was a 20-year-old Air Force (AF) ROTC cadet on my way to Army Airborne Training in Fort Benning, Georgia. Most of my peers were headed to a random AF Base in the States to shadow a real AF officer in their chosen career field for a week or two. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to jump out of big airplanes and earn my jump wings and proudly wear them on my military uniform for my entire career.

I did not know what to expect but was quickly introduced to the Army way of training soldiers for combat. I have not endured greater mental or physical strain in my life than I did at Army Airborne training that hot summer in Georgia. I watched a friend collapse from heat stroke, go into cardiac arrest and get rushed to the hospital while a Sergeant Airborne told me he hoped that she died because she didn't drink enough water. The next day, I almost burst my over-hydrated bladder while standing in formation for hours without being allowed to go pee after witnessing the near-death incident. We were doing hundreds of push ups, sit ups and flutter kicks every day. We double timed everywhere in combat boots and practiced crashing into the earth from various heights over and over again until we got it right. We spent 12-16 hours of each and every day doing these things. I got it, and I loved it. They were trying to make us mentally and physically strong enough to survive our 5 jumps from large C-141 and C-130 aircraft without killing ourselves or the soldier next to us in the process. It was all one big well-designed training program.

I had three things that made me stand out and worked against me in this training. First, I was Air Force in an Army Training program. Second, I was an officer candidate in a sea of enlisted. Third, I was a female. From day one, I got attention, and it wasn't the good kind. I wasn't able to blend in because I was branded with a piece of masking tape on my kevlar helmet that read "C50". The C stood for Cadet and the 50 was just my number. Charlie is the phonetic identifier for the letter C in the military. The Army shortens it the monosyllabic Chuck. So, my name was Chuck five zero.

Loading up a C-141 for my first jump.

Dumping the chumps out of a C-130. 
I was fearless at that time. I wanted to do the most difficult and daring things possible. I wanted to push myself to test my limits. I ended up getting injured during the last week of training, jump week, when an Army Officer landed on my back while I was gathering my parachute after a jump. My knee twisted underneath her weight, and I knew something wasn't right with it when I tried to walk. I had just gone through 2 weeks of hell to get to this glorious week of jumping and it had ended with a dumb accident. I was not about to give up. The Lieutenant who landed on me gave me an entire bottle of ibuprofen, a prescription-only medicine back then, and tried to assure me I would be okay. I took the drugs and limped through the remaining days of training, completing my 5 jumps and earning my airborne wings. (I had arthroscopic surgery as soon as I returned home to fix a torn medial meniscus in my knee).

Even receiving my Airborne wings in a glorious ceremony wasn't enough for Chuck 50. I wanted "blood wings". You get your blood wings behind closed doors where they punch the metal Airborne badge into the flesh of your chest with the pointy barbed fasteners exposed. I got my blood wings and proudly wore the scabby holes in my chest left by this act for a couple of weeks following training.

Graduation Day for Charlie Company and Chuck 50. 
Replaying this memory during my run reminded me that I am not a wimp. I never have been, and I never will be. It made me realize that I have an incredible amount of courage and pain tolerance that I can draw upon in my running if I want to. I firmly believe I have the fitness to achieve my goal in Chicago and run even faster in the future. I just need to reconnect with and summon that mental toughness when I feel those tired legs, at whatever point they decide to introduce themselves in my race, and tell them to go to hell. I plan to bring Chuck 50 to the starting line in Chicago, airborne wings and all, and will bust open that marathon with this 43-year old, Airborne-trained ass.

Effin' hooah!


  1. I really enjoy following your training and I wanted to say I am just so impressed by you. It is cool to hear a little bit about how you got to where you are today - sounds like you've been a badass for life!

  2. Great story! This life history and experience is an advantage that masters runners carry with them into races that younger runners don't.
    John Blue

  3. I loved this story! You're going to nail it in Chicago, and I'm going to love telling people, "So this hardcore chick who won the 5k race where I PRed last spring? Yeah, guess what she did NOW."

  4. Wow. That goes some way to explaining your totally wimp-free training (in my view). Tough. Gradually draw from that experience in Chicago and you'll have a great race. Bit of a shame they don't have barbed fasteners for the finish medals.

  5. Thank you, Beth and trifitmom. I'm starting to believe that I might have that badass gene after all!

    John, I agree that we have much richer and deeper experience to draw from as older runners. Good point!

    Layla, thanks for your vote of confidence. I'll do my best to make you proud!

    You crack me up, Ewen. I would be first in line for the "blood finisher's medal" were they to offer it in Chicago;)

  6. J-effin-rad-ass,

    wow, what a spectacular view into your former life and whereabouts. impressive.

    I like to alter the old mantra "mind over matter" to "mind+heart=defeat of matter". If you really really REALLY believe in the deepest corners of your brain that you will succeed, you will. However, your heart has to be equally on board with the mission; the partner of the mind. Heart is the link to our core desire and spirit; it is who we are in raw form. With the 'marriage' of the mind to the heart you have the power of smarts and spirit which no 'matter' will stand a chance against.

    Onward and upward Jaymee. Cannot wait for your kick ass run on 10.10.10!

  7. i don't think anyone would accuse you of being a chicken, jaymee. it just seems like maybe you had unrealistic expectations of how you were supposed to feel during races. i can't speak for the world class folks, but the rest of us do experience some major suffering, especially in short distance races. dealing with the suffering is simply getting into the right state of mind. it's very easy to feel panic come over you when your legs are giving out, your breathing is strained and you feel a potential collapse looming. the problem is, once you get into that state of mind, things only get worse. i remember when leonard and i lived in southern cal a few years ago... they had trails without mile markers. so we were doing an unstructured hard 14 miler together (meaning we didn't have time goals and i didn't even know how long we were doing the hard part). i was just trying to hang on to leonard (who was wearing a garmin)and he was determining how long we were going to run hard. i was going along pretty well, but then i felt myself getting tired and i started to feel this subtle panic. not that i was freaking out... it was more a mental lapse where i began to worry about how much longer i could possibly hold on, i was falling apart, etc. then leonard told me that we only had about a half mile left to go. suddenly i had an energy surge and no longer felt bad... i ran the final part at 5:30 pace. if i was really falling apart that badly, i wouldn't have been able to do that. clearly a part of my problem was all in my head... having angst once i started to get tired. leonard said this really demonstrated how much my mind was holding me back. when i knew that i was going to be able to stop soon, i relaxed, got back into the groove and miraculously felt so much better! of course, the marathon is a different beast. you are experienced enough to know that if you are truly suffering early on, then you're in trouble! the suffering really shouldn't come until the final 10k of the marathon if you've run it right. that's how i knew i was in trouble when we were doing TC: i already felt that collapse happening at mile 12. waaay too early. but you can pretty much bet there will be some suffering in the final part of the marathon. get excited for the challenge of it and as i told another friend once... embrace the suffering! yeah!

  8. Zagrunner23, thanks for your words of wisdom. They reminded me that I need to allow my spirit to override my thinking brain a lot more often. It's hard for me to do but is exactly what I need to do. 10-10-10!

    tmeat: Thanks for your anecdote. It's a great story about mind over matter. Those are exactly the types of experiences I need to have in order to believe in my ability to push through a the inevitable threshold of suffering.

    I agree that the marathon is beastly. My experience has been that I feel crappy early on and have it turn around later in the race. For me, I typically feel horrible around mile 13-14 and it turns around by mile 20. My last 10k is usually pretty good, though I feel tired.

    I wrote this post more for me than for anyone else. I wrote it as a reminder to myself that I am a badass. I had begun to question whether I had lost my badass edge. I am the one that needs to stop accusing myself of being a chicken.

  9. what i would like to know is... why is it that we rarely feel incredible in our marathons, yet we can have 20 milers or longer that are really great and incredible? is it just probability and statistics? meaning we rarely do marathons and races, yet we do workouts all the time... so we're bound to have more really great workouts then races? i mean, do you experience the same thing in workouts that you do for your marathons (feeling crappy early on and strong in the end)? well, it's not that bad of a way to go... i've had almost nothing but painful struggles at the end of all my marathons. not fun!!

  10. tmeat: I wish I had an answer to your question. I lean toward the probability explanation. I do wonder whether, if you looked at the percentage of workouts that go poorly compared to the percentage of races that suck, if you wouldn't have a similar number. Also, maybe our expectations for workouts are lower than those for races?

    Yes, I do feel the same way in many workouts. Normally, my first few repeats feel the worst and my last are pretty strong. Remember that I typically start taking water breaks late in my workouts (for workouts where I'm running at high intensity for long miles, mostly) which limits my suffering. I generally slow down at the end of the marathon to ease the discomfort too, though not by a huge amount (generally a 2-3 minute positive split). I have only negative split one marathon (3 minute neg. split, 5 minute PR), and in that one, I crossed the finish line feeling like a million bucks. I literally could have gone another 10 miles. I have no idea why that day felt that good especially since I had run another marathon a few weeks before. If I knew, I'd be doing that in every marathon. But, as we've said before, it really takes a combination of a number of factors to create days like that. I think extrinsic factors probably weigh almost as heavily on our performances in races (and workouts, actually) than we know.