Training Tools | Learning to be Mindful On and Off the Trail

After finishing the UROC 100K in Virginia.

I have added a new weapon to my daily training.

This weapon is helping me in my personal relationships, at work, and has become a new tool to use when things get rough on the trail.

A year and a half ago, I discovered that my body had an interesting way of letting me know that I was feeling stressed out: My hair started falling out.

Over a three-week period, a bald spot the size of a half dollar appeared on the right side of my head. It was quick, sudden, and could not be hidden. Sincerely concerned about the rate of hair loss, I took a trip to the dermatologist and was diagnosed with alopecia areata. WebMD defines this as, “A type of hair loss that occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks the hair follicles.”

According to the dermatologist, this was most likely brought about by stress. Which was funny, because until a random large bald spot appeared on my skull, I did not feel like I was that stressed out.

Since that first visit to the dermatologist, I have had to make three trips back. Each visit following the same routine.

The doctor tells me I need to lower my stress.

I say that I am trying.

I get stabbed in the head multiple times to get injected with a steroid.

My last appointment was in April after a few really bad weeks at work. As I walked out of the doctor’s office, I decided it was time to try something a little different.

I had listed to a podcast that talked in depth about guided mindfulness using meditation apps that were available on the App Store. While I have “meditated” during portions of yoga class, I had never considered myself the meditation type. But I was willing to give it a try, because getting stabbed repeatedly in the head SUCKS.

I downloaded the Headspace app on my phone that evening. After creating an account, I picked a comfortable chair in our bedroom and I started my first 10-minute session.

Since then, I have mediated daily. At first, I was worried about adding something else to my already busy schedule. To create more time in the mornings I started ironing a week’s worth of work clothes on Sunday nights. This small change freed up ten minutes allowing me to meditate before work.

The benefits were not immediate. Matter of fact, I am pretty sure that I still suck at meditation. But, that is ok. Both these guided sessions and the literature I have been reading confirm that getting lost in your thoughts — and then re-centering — is just part of the mental drill. I have learned I really had to work at this practice.

I have seen benefits though. I have felt more comfortable at work while briefing large groups. During tense conversations I have tried to work on separating myself from emotions so that I am responding and not reacting. And a recent race, these mental tools helped me push through a low point late in the race.

The UROC 100K is a challenging race in the Shenandoah Mountains. Sara and I had chosen the race because it was in a beautiful region and the timing was perfect for a training run a month out from the Bryce Canyon 100.

The course website advertised approximately 7,000 feet of gain. And while I hadn’t made the pre-race briefing, those in attendance quoted the RD as saying it was around 8,000 feet of climbing.

Both were wrong.

In the weeks leading up to the race we’d discussed how the race did not have as much climbing as we would have liked. So to make up for it, we headed out for a loop of The Wild Oak Trail the weekend before. This loop is the most difficult terrain in our region, offering 8,000 feet of gain in 29 miles.

In total, UROC had just under 12,000 feet of gain, which completely took us by surprise, especially since we were running on tired legs. In hindsight, UROC was a great race heading into Bryce. But a little past the halfway point of the race, my inner voice was nothing but negative talk.

I was cussing myself for being so over confident that I thought I could run The Wild Oak Trail the week before.

I was cussing myself again for being underprepared. For not knowing the course better and not expecting those climbs.

And I was cussing ever step and every rock. And there were a lot of fucking rocks.

This is where my new weapon came into play.

There is a concept that I have found through mindfulness meditation called “noting.” The Insight Meditation Center describes noting as, “the practice of using a simple ‘note’ to calmly name — as a whisper in the mind — what we are experiencing.”

As I ran along that ridgeline I decided to put noting to work as a way of ending my inner dialogue. I began to “note” everything I could see. Instead of allowing my inner voice to complain, it began to sound more like this:

Stickstickrockrockrockrockstickrockstickpurplefowerrockrocrostickdirtdirtdirtdirtrockdirtrockdirtstickpineneedlegreengreenstickdirtgreendirtrockstickdirt

And it worked. I pulled myself  out of my funk and picked up my pace, finishing the race in 13:48. Not only did I have a great time, but the effectiveness of this mental tool blew my mind.

Over the last few weeks, I have added an additional meditation session to my evenings. To keep things fresh, I am using the 10% Happier App for that second session. I am also reading George Mumford’s book The Mindful Athlete. Mumford has been the go-to mindfulness coach for pro basketball coach Phil Jackson and worked with athletes such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. My hope is that I can learn from his work a trick or two that will help me while running Bryce next week and the Tahoe 200 in September.

While my hair issues have not totally finished, it is noticeably less severe. And more importantly I feel much more in tune with my body and less reactive in my personal and professional life.

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