My brother had called and texted, telling me to find a place to stay in Pennsylvania. Like any mid 20’s know it all, listening to my older brother wasn’t something that came naturally. It wasn’t even snowing at that point in the 4-hour drive from Penn State back home to the Washington DC suburbs of Northern Virginia. It didn’t help that we were three post-collegiate runners living on shoestring budgets where an extra night in a hotel would actually put a sizable dent in to our bank accounts.
I’d started the journey the day before with my two teammates and friends Moises Joseph and Nikeya Green. We ventured up to Penn State to compete in one of their indoor meets and like most trips with Moises and Nikeya we never came home without at least one story to tell. But this isn’t about the races themselves, but instead about our experience coming home.
You see, we were about to encounter one of the busiest blizzards that the Northern Virginia area had experienced in almost 100 years, that would limit us to trudging through snow, doing repeat 800m underneath an overpass, and repeats on a track with waist-high snow everywhere except lane one for the next few weeks. Being young, brash, and with a little dumb luck of having Moises, who grew up in Florida, driving and me, who grew up in Texas, navigating undoubtedly compounded the problem. Generally, a Texan and Floridian don’t have the best winter driving expertise. With our only Virginian, Nikeya, in the back seat, we drove along with only a slight fear of the impending weather.
The weather was actually quite deceiving. It was simply cold all the way until we made it to Virginia. As soon as we crossed the river on 495, things began to change drastically. The snow began to pummel our car as the freeway became an icy and slushy mess. Needless to say, in Mo’s rear wheel drive car we weren’t exactly built for dealing with this mess. Despite taking it exceedingly cautious, we found ourselves in the far left lane of a four-lane highway taking our time. We knew not to be in any rush and Mo was handling the situation as best he could as us and a number of other seemingly bright people were out on the slush-covered freeway that night.
And everything was fine, except in one instance we must have hit a patch of slush or ice in a particular way, and our car began to spin. All of the sudden we were performing a nice little 360 across the freeway. As time slowed, we spun so that we were facing the shining headlight of the middle two lanes of oncoming traffic. Luckily for us, we kept spinning and eventually ended up in the far right lane facing the right direction.
What is interesting about this story though is not the sweet maneuver across the freeway, but instead what happened during it. You see, as Mo lost control an interesting thing occurred. First, both of our perceptions changed as time began to slow. Secondly, we had the calmest conversation in the world.
“Well, this is not good Mo.” “No. This is definitely not good.”
We both said in the calmest, most monotone voices that either of us could muster. Meanwhile, in the back of the car, Nikeya wasn’t so calm, in fact, she was screaming. You can’t blame Nikeya as this would seemingly be the “normal” reaction. But after we settled into our spot on the far right side of the freeway and relished our escaping harm, we had a good laugh about the calm conversation me and Mo were having in the front, with Nikeya’s rather opposite reaction in the back seat of the car.
Following this surreal moment, the fun didn’t stop as we eventually had to push Mo’s car up a steep icy hill before getting going just long enough to make it to Nikeya’s house where we simply abandoned our cars and crashed at for the next few days, even though our homes were only a few miles away.
The point isn’t the crazy story though, it’s that moment. The moment of calmness during chaos. It was the calm conversation.
5 miles in, 2 miles to go. After starting at a relatively controlled 5:30 pace we had finally ventured down where my watch was now showing splits of under 5:00 pace for each passing mile. Although there isn’t anything special or different about going from splits that were just a shade over 5 to ones that began with 4, it can play with your mind. As long as the pace is over 5, you can convince yourself that you are okay and that you’re still clicking off at hard but controlled tempo. Now, we were venturing into the other side of that line, even if it was largely symbolic.
The issue wasn’t the slight change of pace, but instead the fact that after 5 miles of cranking it down, I was starting to hurt and we still had 2 more miles to go. Normally in these spots on longer grinding workouts, I go through a routine of essentially convincing myself I’m fine. I’d learned these tricks of the trade through countless miles at near 5-minute pace through over a decade of training.
Step one was simple; listen to my breathing. So for a brief moment, I would redirect my attention inwards and listen to my breath go in and out and visualize my chest rising and falling. For as long as I’ve run, I’ve been a fairly relaxed breather. It was a way to compensate for some asthma issues I had growing up, so I naturally adopted a style that kept my breathing under control for as long as possible. It wasn’t until I was in the lung-searing depths of fatigue that I would let it go and hyperventilate like the rest of the running world.
Step two was the talk test. If I couldn’t convince myself that my breathing was under control so that meant I still had more in the tank, I’d resort to talking. The logic was that if I could still blurt out a sentence or two, then I’m fine to keep going. A Younger and a slightly less mature 19-year-old me actually put this to the test with my friend Andy by running right at our lactate threshold, as measured by a lactate measuring device, and tested how long of a sentence we could get away with saying without feeling that pressing need to breathe. After our scientific testing, the sentence that survived was a slightly more immature version of the sentence we now stick with which is “I feel good, I feel great, I want to communicate.” We found that we should start to feel the urge to take in another breath during communicate and if we felt it before then, we were in trouble.
If I made it through the talk test, I could normally fake my way through it for a bit and convince myself to man up and suffer for just a little more. You see, during these long tempo runs, it was all about tricking myself.
I was trying to delay the panic attack. No, not a real panic attack. But that moment that we’ve all experienced where our body starts making the connection that we might be a little over our heads and that the pain that is building might be a little more than we want to feel for how long we still have to go. If you let your body fully come to this realization, then what occurs next is the panic attack. You get a shot of stress hormones that flow through your body and your mind goes a million miles a minute, freaking out that you won’t be able to make it to the finish. Our minds begin to race and we turn into the worst, most impulsive versions of ourselves. To make matters worse, as this wave of panic flows through you, it triggers your physical posture to change. Our running mechanics start to go crazy as our arms start to flail, our head starts drifting backward, and our posture starts to resemble a strange contorted version of our previous self. All of that, from our mind, simply realizing the pain and stress we were under at the moment.
That’s what my simple tricks were developed to keep at bay. I’d learned through the years that if I could delay spastic running Steve from making an appearance, I could run or race faster. It was all about keeping myself calm.
But, as I ran that 7 milers with the sole job of toeing Brian and Yonas along for a ride, I went through a different process. Instead of attempting to fake my way through it, convince my brain otherwise to the obviously increasing sense of effort, I embraced it. No, I didn’t consciously say “I’m going to embrace the pain” or some lame mantra. Instead, naturally, I had a calm conversation. There was no holding the impending panic at bay. Instead, it was simple.
“Well, this is starting to hurt a little bit. Makes sense, just a gentle reminder from my body that we’re running fast now. Yonas and Brian are still hanging on. It’ll probably start to hurt a little bit more.”
There was no panic, no judgment, no rationalizing or trying to fake my way through anything. Instead, it was rather simple. I had a calm clear conversation in my head that assessed where I was with no judgment or jumping to conclusions afterward. There wasn’t a jump from this is starting to hurt..so I should do X. Instead, it was a simple acknowledgment of the statement with no connected response. In essence, it was as if I was simply an observer of myself.
So the run went on and we continued to work down the pace over the next 2 miles, with no panic or emotional reaction in sight. This experience continued for the rest of the year as I began to find that even during intense, race-like efforts, I was getting the same experience.
I’d made a breakthrough. I wondered where this ability had come from and was attempting to relate it to other experiences I’d had. And that’s when it hit me:
I was experiencing the calm conversation.
The Science of Calmness:
You see in the world of neuroscience, where people smarter than I study the brain, they’ve figured out how to explain this. There’s an actual perception of the sensation and then there is an emotional reaction to that sensation. While one might think it is simply a linear path from sensation to reaction, what researchers have found is that there’s an individual nature to it. In other words, someone can have a greater awareness of the sensation but have a much reduced emotional reaction to it or vice versa.
So when we are in a state of stress, fatigue, or emotion we are triggered to respond in certain ways thanks to the hormonal milieu that floods our bodies during such states. These hormones might bias us to behave in certain ways. For instance, it makes sense that if we saw a lion in the jungle in the past that our bodies would flood our body with stress hormones to prepare us for escaping that predicament. The hormones would bias us towards performing certain actions and being attuned to certain perceptions and sensations.
The thing is that how we respond and react to these stressors and the bodies hormonal nudging can be altered.
And in fact, with people who are experts at mindfulness, they’ve found this disconnect. You get the strange finding of people having either the same or increased activity in the areas in the brain related to experiencing/attending to a particular sensation, but a much-decreased activity level in the areas related to emotional response. In a study by Lutz in 2012, they compared how expert meditators in comparison to novices responded to a painful stimuli. What they found that the intensity of the stimuli was the same, but the experts found less unpleasantness than the novices. Additionally, the experts showed reduced anxiety towards anticipation of the pain and a quicker habituation to the pain once it came. In other words, they adapted to the painful stimuli much quicker.
In discussing the topic of meditation, author Tim Ferriss referred to the feeling as “you start to be able to observe those thoughts and not just feel those thoughts. So when you get angry, you kind of just think ‘oh that’s interesting. I’m getting angry….It’s a separation of actor and observer.”
And this process is likely what occurs during “The calm conversation.” While I’ve had glimpses of this throughout my running career, it’s only been as I’ve gotten older and perhaps calmer that I’ve regularly experienced it. And perhaps, just like mindfulness training needs a lot of practice and work until you can regularly get this effect, it probably takes just as long to translate it to running.
And this makes sense. While attempting to avoid getting “new age” on you, running in many senses is an act of meditation. When we go on longer runs by ourselves or even with a less than the talkative group, we’re alone with our thoughts and we decide what to do with those thoughts. As pain or fatigue increases it forces us to attempt to cope and figure out what the best strategy is to deal with negative thoughts that creep into our awareness.
And as shown by a study by Wilson in 2014, people don’t like being alone in their own head:
“What is striking is that simply being alone with their
own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it
drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock
that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid,”
So what we do as runners runs counter to what it seems we humans are pre-programmed to do. So there’s a reason that even researchers have compared running to a meditative state. And while I’m not suggesting some grand enlightenment, what I am suggesting is that while we often think about being “tough” and dealing with pain during “see God” workouts, perhaps it’s really establishing our ability to direct or even disconnect our thoughts from the emotional response that matters. And perhaps, over the long haul, we can establish and ingrain this ability.
When we run hard we are faced with the dilemma of dealing with high levels of fatigue, pain, and effort, all while trying to make the right decision to push on through it all. And, once again, research shows that during pain and fatigue, it shifts the way we make decisions. For instance, during heavy fatigue, we’re more likely to shift away from cues/thoughts that push us towards self-control and move towards those things that bias us towards “rewards” (Inzlicht, 2010). Now rewards sound great, but what that really means is we’re biased towards things that allow for a solution. So one “reward” might be stopping or slowing down, because it gives an immediate change, or solution, to the fatigue we are feeling.
What we appear to be doing during this calm conversation is we’re limiting the impact fatigue, stress, and emotional responses can have on our decision-making abilities. So instead of our brain trying to trick us into thinking that the huge emotional response to the effort of running is telling us that if we don’t slow down we’re going to be near death, we simply are able to assess how close to the edge we actually are.
You see, when it comes to racing and fatigue, it’s the mismatch that matters. How close we can get to our actual limits determines how well we do. Our brain has certain inbuilt safety systems that prevent us from reaching that actual maximum. When we have a large emotional reaction to fatigue, we are likely to be trigger happy on the “oh crap we’re near the limit” decision. Fatigue bias’ us into deluding ourselves that we are. Instead, if we can disconnect the perception of effort with the emotional reaction to it, we can actually find how close to that line we are.
And that’s been my experience in running and racing with a clearer head. For example, in our annual 2-man 4×800 relay we did this year where I was fortunate enough to split a couple sub-2 800s, I got to experience first hand this dividing up of energy along the way. The 2-man 4×800 presents a unique pacing problem because you essentially have to predict how much you are going to recover in the ~2min that your partner takes to run their leg. During each of my legs, I was, fortunately, able to have that calm conversation. During the 2nd 800 leg, I distinctly remember getting out in the first 200m finding that pace and knowing where my red-line was. As I came through 400m and Yonas passed me, I resisted the urge to immediately respond as anxious and trigger-happy younger Steve would have. Instead, I thought “Don’t go yet, patience.” So I let Yonas go by and put 2-3 meters on me as I stuck on my “red-line”.
As we got to 200m to go and the fatigue of the previous 1400m worth of work started to catch up, “You’re going to feel like you’re leaning back now.” entered my brain as my physical body started to try to go into “tie up” mode. Instead of panicking, I adjusted slightly, increased my arm stroke and then had the nice little thought to start winding up with 170m to go. Coming off the turn, I repassed Yonas and although my foot was to the floor putting everything I had into it, it was still a calm experience. The pain was quite intense and I would be gasping for air and collapsed on the track in less than 100 meters, but my mind was clear. I was simply observing myself running to exhaustion.
And I was quite at peace with that.