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pain

Giving up versus giving in

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In endurance sports there is often an unspoken but powerful aversion to vulnerability. Becoming vulnerable means feeling the pain to which you subject yourself; witnessing your own fallibility, lack of preparedness, or even (most terrifying of all) your own power. Athletes often bristle when I talk with them about beginning a dialogue with the parts of them that suffer on long runs or climbs.

And still: becoming soft is vital to realizing your strength. I'll give you an example.

In training for the Wonderland Trail in 2012 I ran a solo fifty miler on the Northside Loop starting at sundown to preview the work in store for me on the real run. It was hot: 85F all night even at 7000' and I sweated quickly through my shirt. Even though I was used to running alone in the dark five mornings a week, the immensity and gravitas of the committing route I'd chosen resonated inside me as fear and with each snap of a twig underfoot I tightened. An owl alighted from a fir bough nearly causing me to throw up in surprise at the dark unknown unpopulated with other humans and stretching into blackness for miles in each direction. At some point, though, I relaxed into the sensation of being followed and yet alone, hooting every minute or so and finding my feathered companion trailed me for a good hour. 

Then, around 3am, a porcupine launched out of an impossibly-small triangular space between cobbles in the trail and its stumpy legs propelled it along close on my heels and all I could think was: "WHAT THE FUCK: AGAIN?" <aside: I was first chased by a porcupine while lost in a swamp at the base of Mount Stuart in 2009.> After this brief sprint, which occurred around mile thirty-seven, I was pretty discouraged mentally and physically feeling spent. Mara assaulted me and I dropped to the dusty trail. Metabolic waste products ached in my legs making them feel like concrete piers dipped in acid, my stomach churned, my mind spoke nonsense to me that I just happened to be tired enough to believe: "You're not a runner or even an athlete, what the hell are you doing out here? You're not good enough to belly up to a goal like the Wonderland alone or at all for that matter. Who the hell do you think you are to be so audacious? You're an amateur, you're broken, you're too tired to finish. You might as well give up now and not even try to run the hundred since fifty was clearly too much for you."

This might sound like giving up but it wasn't because of one key aspect of the experience. I let the thoughts spool out, I let my legs ache to hell and back, I let myself lie there in mud created by my own piss on the dust for a long time then, because I'd given myself no escape hatch, I stood, dusted myself off, ate something, and started moving down the trail.

The rest of the run took on a softer quality. I found myself crying before sunrise (that darkest dark, you know?) in a meadow about which I'd dreamed (which consequently bore the name "Mystic") months prior. Though I was in the kind of immense pain that comes for me around mile forty of every long run, the kind that makes my skin feel too tight and inspires me to peel it off for relief, I perceived pleasure in a cool breeze issuing from the mouth of the base of Thermogenesis a few thousand feet up and to my right. A family of goats joined me as I crested the final hill into Sunrise at sunrise, kids skating shale shards off its crest which slashed my legs as I they ticked uphill like a metronome. In the final drop down to White River Campground where my car sat loaded with blueberries, kombucha, and the remainders of yesterday's burger my shoulders drooped and I felt the relief of having released my goal.

Immediately upon sitting with the spoils of my snacks, shirtless sweaty back leaned up against my truck tire, I looked at the time: it was only 6:45am, a rather short ten hours since I'd left my car the night before. Huh, I wasn't as slow as I thought I'd be. Then, scanning through my body that had been so focused on the importance of its own productive pain, I realized I wasn't injured or even particularly physically spent. What I had convinced myself was impossible overnight, my goal of running the Wonderland solo and unsupported, began to feel possible again as I realized that I'd completed what I set out to achieve on what was likely to be my hardest training run.

I was only able to transform into the mind-body tool capable of containing this mountain gnosis because of my willingness to engage self-doubt, pain, and fear as they arose. If I had maintained distance from my experience, ANS fired up all night in a false sense of protection and reactive control, I would have bonked for real, sending me into what would have been a dangerous situation alone on the trail at night a two day walk from wherever a ranger might depart to rescue me. Instead of resisting the negative emotions, the many Maras of my silly existence, I related with them - however ungracefully it happened. 

When giving up becomes an option, the only way to continue to commit to the growth contained in the experience is to give in. Making yourself vulnerable in the face of creation, universe, or god is necessary to go as far as you can go. To give yourself over fully to the depth of the experience is the only way to access your true power - and let me tell you it runs a lot deeper than bluster, bravado, and happiness.

read more:

Solo and unsupported

Andrea Laughery client interview - Becoming An Athlete

Deep play

Fear of the wild

Performance according to your element

Solo and unsupported: more than a matter of style

daily sessions on my private trails bring me peace and balance, Summer 2017

My relationship with being alone in the forest as a tool of self-discovery and intimacy with place goes back as far as I can remember. When family gatherings as a child or, heck, my own birthday parties would get too stressful for me I’d retire to the sturdy limbs of the nearest cedar with my journal until all the guests had departed. Often I’d invite friends over for play dates as a kid to appease my mom then spend the entire time they were at my house evading and spying on them or constructing makeshift tents out of the brown tall grass, whiling away the afternoon alone and daydreaming. At recess during elementary school I spent my time making concoctions of whatever plants grew on the playground or I stayed in the library and read, invariably alone and not at all miffed. This behavior continued into my teens as I made my first forays into the mountains solo.

The first time I remember conducting an endurance activity alone in the mountains I was sixteen and on snowshoes. There is a minor ridge to the north-northwest of Mount Rainier––the trail was near my home and where I’d worked as a volunteer with the Department of Fish and Wildlife so I felt comfortable there and I admired the mountain whose milk had nourished me all through childhood. Though the entire hike was less than eight miles long, I saw no one the entire way up. When I doubled back on my path of ascent, I began to note cougar tracks laid in to the square patterns made by my snowshoes. That was the first time I felt the now-familiar mix of fear, responsibility, and wonder that comes standard with each of my solo ventures into the wilderness. That snowy day I also realized that, by putting myself at the mercy of the more-than-human yet remaining aware and not dissociating by arming myself, I felt the natural order of things in the woods and my heart was tender, my ears were sharp, my attention diffused itself to perceive the slightest movements and sound in the silent understory.

Following that first time in the mountains alone, I began hiking to my favorite alpine lakes alone that summer; this was less because I preferred being alone and more because I found my friends were less reliably available to join me than I’d have liked. When I was twenty I took up mountaineering; that same summer I rode the train then hitched in to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park on a ten-day backpacking trip alone. On that trip I interacted with my first moose in the wild and I coped with fear so profound that at night it felt like a hand pressing on my chest as I tried in vain to sleep. 

This quickly devolved into runs from Camp Muir to the top of the Cleaver solo as a twenty-two-year-old climbing ranger on Mount Rainier. Once the slowest and most cautious person on the mountain (literally, not hyperbolically) I surprised myself by striding out alone, unroped across the Cowlitz and Ingraham Glaciers in my lightest crampons. I liked the feeling of efficiency, traveling without so much as a pack to slow me down, and the way that my lack of safety devices demanded that I use my mind to discern subtle bumps in the snow that might be collapsable snow bridges and to take note of the speed at which I traveled downhill in different consistencies of snow. In 2010 I set the first female speed record on the mountain, simul-soloing next to my late partner, Chad Kellogg, and ultimately deciding to tell no one about the day’s activities. The feeling of total awareness combined with complete relaxation, the giddy action of leaping over gaping crevasses next to my soul mate, is one I only replicated with the homebirth of my child five years later.

Together, we also climbed solo on alpine rock and waterfall ice. The most indelible of these experiences came one day just before solstice on our yearly trips to Canmore to ice climb. We climbed a multipitch waterfall unroped and in perfect synch next to one another. This took a lot of trust, not only in my own technical abilities, in the ice and in him. Climbing together that day, feeling the ringing of my solid sticks in plastic ice and the vibration of his tools landing in unison, goes down for me as one of my favorite moments in the mountains. We found safety in moving fast together but still solo.

Chad’s boldness in his solo endeavors and the elegant simplicity of his alpine aesthetic poured fuel on the loneliness-seeking fire inside me and solidified my own stylistic leanings as a spirit-athlete. When we parted ways, I began to run ultras solo and unsupported as a way to feel less confused by other people and more in the company with the beings with whom I knew I belonged: the trees and the animals. Over the next couple years I ran distances from 50k to 100 miles, some that I had never run before, solo and unsupported adding up to twenty-seven ultras alone at the time of writing.

I taught myself to rope solo the summer of 2014 but didn’t begin to rely on that tool as one for regular training until the summer of 2015 when I moved to the Methow. I realized that, alone, I could knock out a ten-pitch session in less than a quarter of the time it would have taken with a partner. Sure, I didn’t get the opportunity to lead given that I was top-rope soloing at the time, but if fitness and simple movement on the rock were my intended outcomes for the day then rope soloing was the vastly more efficient way to get it done. I continued rope soloing through the first two trimesters of my pregnancy with Rumi and, as a parent, rope soloing has often been the only way to get in a few quick pitches as parenting compresses my schedule.

These days, in the summer and autumn I rope solo and run alone six days a week; in the winters I run and ski alone six days a week - many of these days include two solo sessions in a day (climb/run, or run/ski, or on the best days run/climb/ski). I have never been late to check in with my safety people and have self-evacuated after my two injuries alone in the mountains - one evacuation had me run/walking twenty miles alone and hypothermic, the other bleeding from four orofices with bursa in my knee deployed and a shattered pinkie knuckle.

These days, solo and unsupported is my happy default - rock, snow, and trail. I’m no Honnold, nor do I ever want to be, but here’s this introvert’s guide to the ethic of the solo, unsupported athlete.

Brittany Raven

 

on a speed climb on Rainier conducted simul-solo, Summer 2011, cr. Chad Kellogg

 

What is soloing for runners? For running this can encompass a broad spectrum of what is considered “solo”. This begins, in its mildest form, as a fully-supported run completed alone. The runner’s crew might maintain aid stations, refill the runner’s water, provide bodywork on the fly, and do course marking or navigation for the runner. But why deal with the annoyance and distraction of other people clogging your spirit work and complicating your plans? In its most extreme, solo running takes the form of solo, unsupported, onsight runs in the mountains. This is the same for skiing except in ski mountaineering where a pair of skiers can solo by simply choosing not to rope up or a single skier can go out alone.

What is soloing for climbers? Climbers can rope solo, either top-rope or lead, on a variety of terrains from sport crags to alpine multipitch climbs, to glaciers, to big walls, and on aid pitches. There is a lot of complexity between and among these varied types of roped solo climbing. A climber can also simul-solo, solo alongside a partner on rock, ice, or glacier, which is a common practice for a team of experienced climbers wishing to travel swiftly through easy terrain between harder pitches or steeper, more broken terrain. Sometimes unroping in this environment is the safest decision for the team. The most risky soloing a climber can do is to free solo (climb without ropes though sometimes still in a harness) on a bigwall or mulitpitch route - especially one she or he has never climbed before. The levels of risk, experience, and judgement involved in decisions about soloing while climbing range widely from top-rope soloing to free solo bigwall climbs.

 

I go alone because I want to be free, Autumn 2018

 

Why? For athletes for whom comparative, patriarchal, capitalist models of alpinism originating in whiteness ring hollow, there exists an alternate path: going alone and sharing your journey only out of joy, not conquest or personal gain. This path is little-discussed, stigmatized, and old as time. Every spiritual tradition has, in its structure, a wisdom-seeker who goes into the wilderness alone to seek or construct situations that alter their ordinary perceptive reality into one of non-dual awareness and psychedelia. It is my personal belief that this is where most mythology springs from. Some athletes choose to solo simply because their need for movement outstrips the availability of partners. Some go because they like to be quiet, as a break from their lives of constant social obligation.

Internal risk factors: Reserves, physical and emotional, are the first consideration in choosing whether or not to go solo. If it has been a stressful week at work, if you’ve not been sleeping well, or if you’re in emotional distress, either choose to not solo or choose a solo activity with less objective hazard or one in familiar terrain. Risk assessment capacities are vital to develop and maintain as a solo athlete and they can be compromised if you are observed, if you’re tired, or when you’re stressed. Medical training for solo athletes is a must. Attain and keep current at least a Wilderness First Responder and become familiar with the types of self-rescue systems you might need to employ if you are rope soloing in any sort of terrain. There are creative ways a soloist on a glacier can protect herself when crossing a crevasse and important knots, hitches, and pieces of equipment a climber must learn to use to release the load on a rope or to lower themselves safely back to the ground. Be sure you have solid navigation skills before venturing into the mountains alone. Pregnancy is not necessarily a risk factor in the solo endeavor rather the person’s individual health and skill level should be the determining factors.

External risk factors: Objective hazard comes in many different flavors depending on your mode of travel: avalanche, crevasse falls, wildfire, rockfall, tree wells, adverse weather events, falling off a wall or trail, and deadfall in historic burns all make the list. Other people in high-traffic areas are a particular concern for female mountain movers. Animals rank lowest for me on my list of external risk factors.

Mental training: Part of being solo and unsupported that refines me is the component of total commitment. If shit hits the fan, I am the only one out there to resolve things––I have to let go of any sense of being the victim of my circumstances and take responsibility for what is in every moment. The athlete should have a sober and realistic assessment of her own abilities including technical skill, planning, and fitness before venturing out alone. Fortitude, the quality of persisting either stoically or softly under pressure, is vital for the solo athlete and going alone will cultivate this in you. Rather than allowing yourself to bonk hard at mile twenty or thirty-six or sixty or at hour twenty-four when you’re out alone, transform those lulls in the event by implementing grace windows instead, walking and feeding your way into them so they hit in a less-acute way. Cultivating any sort of mindfulness practice - sitting, visualization, lucid dreaming, or astral projection - is an invaluable tool for the soloist. You stop being a hero or a martyr the moment you eschew outdated dualistic thinking and instead move in a gnostic paradigm.

 
alone in the Bob, Summer 2007

alone in the Bob, Summer 2007

 

Physical training: When first embarking on solo endeavors, I advise athletes to choose their local training grounds and routine places for alone training sessions. The solo sessions can increase in complexity as the consistent fitness and boldness of the athlete increases. If you want to go alone on new terrain, at a new distance, or under any unfamiliar circumstances, you must first attain an ample endurance base, be in perfect mental and physical health, and accept that additional degree of risk. For some, this level of risk is motivating and exhilarating; for others it is distracting and debilitating. Also choose your solo activity in each discipline in alignment with your skill level at each. For example, I might be comfortable running a solo, unsupported ultra in unfamiliar terrain while I’m only comfortable soloing on alpine rock in places with which I am intimately familiar and whose rock is quite stable.

Safety (or “Do As I Say, Not As I Do”): Leave a plan for your outing with a local safety person. This plan should include a map, where you’re parking, when you anticipate being back in contact with said safety person, and instructions for that person to get in contact with the relevant Search and Rescue professionals in the area if you’re not out on schedule. Carry a satellite GPS tracking device, preferably one with the capability to send and receive messages. These are two important safety concerns and I’ll note here that I’m a hypocrite: I do neither. Though I usually leave a plan with a trusted safety person when I ski or climb alone, many of the trails I run are secret, unmapped trails whose location I won’t disclose to even my best friend. I simply don’t have the $500 to buy a sat phone or pay for the annual subscription. The latter I hope to remedy in the coming year; the former will likely remain the risk it currently is because solitude is solace.

Contraindications: Solo wilderness travel is contraindicated for those people without adequate training, those who lack a clear plan, and those who have experienced the need to be rescued in the past as a result of poor decision-making. Soloing for an audience, whether your friends or a camera crew, is additionally reckless and negates the ego-transcendent properties of true aloneness. Additionally, people in dissociative relationship to their pain and fear are not qualified to travel peacefully and uneventfully alone in the wilderness. People with poor mental health might think of a rash solo trip as the only balm for their pain, this is incorrect. Whether alone or in a group, your most effective safety tool is the mushy, grey one between your ears.

Communion: Alone, I am vulnerable and unguarded - in stark contrast to my daily life among unpredictable two-leggeds. Alone, I am creative and ferocious, forgiving and alive, attuned and magnificent, grotesque and tired. Alone, I realize the emptiness of all things. Above all, going it alone is about connecting with the people with whom I most identify: the trees, rocks, snow, and animals. In this sense, solo and unsupported is less a romantic notion of accessing the unsullied, the undisturbed, the placid and more the practice of plugging in to a subtler frequency without the fetters of ropes, partners, or coordinating plans with someone other than the moon, the snow, and the weather.

Pregnant Athlete: birth

my faithful 'dogla' in the early stages of labor

Given the sacred indelibility and deeply personal nature of Rumi's birth, I've decided not to share our birth story in its entirety here. Instead, what you'll find are select pieces of the experience relevant to the expecting endurance athlete who might worry what her own experience will be like or how her templates for enduring productive pain will stand up to the rigors of labor.

 

Home birth: Grounded in an evidence base that affirms the superior safety of home birth and my long career in women's health on a global scale, we relocated for the summer months to a city that would accomodate a home birth. Leaving behind our newly-finished, hand-built home was a difficult decision and now one we look back on with certainty that it was right for our family. 

Support team: Heather, Traci, Marge, and Farrah at Seattle Home Maternity Service supported our family from eight weeks pregnant until next week at our six week postpartum check. Their care is draws upon cutting-edge science pertinent to a pregnant woman and her gestating child. This focus on scientifically-accurate care permitted my crack team of midwives to not only allow but heartily encourage my ultra running, alpine climbing, backcountry skiing pregnancy - and after the birth they swear it imbued both me and Rumi with benefits not seen in less-active clients.

Onset of labor: Early on the morning of 23 May I could tell I'd go into labor that day. Ryan and I were climbing at Vertical World when I went into labor. I was halfway up a moderately difficult pitch at the end of a productive session (which was accomplished between intensifying contractions) and a whopper hit me. I had him dirt me, quickly pulled my harness off, and announced that I needed to go home. Once we got there, Ryan filled the tub, laid out birthing supplies, and whipped up a mean venison burger - Superman!

Length: Twenty-two hours of active labor, three and a half pushing. Given my many thirty-six hour alpine days and twenty-five mountain ultras this event was one for which I felt well-prepared. 

Strategies: Framing was a hugely important skill for me to employ during labor. Instead of interpreting the splitting feeling in my hips as splitting, my midwives helped me reframe the sensation as 'opening'. Additionally, the ability any solo endurance athlete cultivates to question the oft-convincing voice of the ego is essential for a fear-free birth. My ego chattered and buzzed and I squarely confronted it with my wiser spirit voice.

The soundtrack: During early labor I used my Brainwaves app to soothe me into the work. Once I got into the tub and during pushing I didn't want to listen to anything - not even the playlist I'd crafted for myself. I now use the same app to soothe Rumi when she struggles to fall asleep.

Doudla: Ryan, my partner, served as my doula. This experience contributed something the structure of a granite slab to the bedrock of our relationship. He was the perfect support to me - a person who rarely needs support from others - and witnessing the birth of our child together was truly magickal. The day of the birth is the best day we've ever spent together.

Surprises: Frankly the thing that shocked me about labor was vomiting. I hurled on ten or more occasions three to five times per episode. By relying on the human body's innate ability to keep trucking with little more than swished sugar water, I made it through the birth without eating - which I would not suggest to anyone who is less nauseous than me.

Pushing: As an athlete, I like having a job. Even a painful job suits me better than the doldrums of early labor's hours and hours of not much activity. My midwives and I expected I'd be a good pusher and we were wrong. When it came time to push I not only had no urge to do so I didn't know how. With careful instruction I learned the necessary skill and released her without consequence after three and a half hours' work. Rumi crowned for nine pushes over thirty minutes. I did not interpret this period of labor as pain.

The equivalent: During pregnancy I tried to mentally determine an equivalent for the experience of birth versus other ultra endurance activities I'd already completed. I anticipated that birth would feel like a run between twenty and fifty miles. After my brief recovery process after the event, I understand my birth to be the metabolic equivalent of a forty mile mountain run.

Stay tuned for more on the immediate postpartum experience including how I felt, recovery, and how Rumi fared. Interesting stuff here!

Brittany

Mental Suffering is Optional

suffering deeply during my first fifty miler, 2011

suffering deeply during my first fifty miler, 2011

this morning I woke early beside the creek and immediately embarked on a run. I worked up the paved road with faith that my strides would yeild a taxxing Forest Service road made of art. after just a song or two of hard road running without another soul in sight I intuitively branched onto a dirt spur road that proclaimed 'Road Closed Ahead' and I sped up because I know these are the ribbons that will keep going and going allowing me to exorcise my excess energy before the day's heat begins.

as I went I thought many beautiful thoughts, writing and destroying poetry in my head. I noted the day's residual heat from the 100F+ day before.

on the descent I felt so joyful I could barely contain myself; I felt heavy and strong. the slight pain of a speed-induced lactic acid dump allowed me to finally mill a post about productive pain for you which I've included after the quote here. serendipitously, I just received a newsletter from Arno Ilgner's 'Warrior's Way' program which nicely echoes my philosophy on pain. enjoy.

There’s a difference between physical and mental suffering. Physical suffering is a given. If we want to climb a big wall, then we’ll suffer physically on the approach, the climb, and the return. A lot of physical effort will be needed to accomplish the goal. However, mental suffering is optional. If the mind is focused on resisting the physical suffering, then we’ll suffer mentally.

Suffering increases as our attention shifts out of the present moment. The body is always in the present moment. To minimize physical suffering we focus our attention on the quality of how we engage the body. We do this by relaxing into the stress of the moment. We focus our attention on breathing, proper posture, relaxing as much as possible, and our senses. If our attention is focused in the body and what we perceive with our senses, then it won’t be focused in the mind, thinking about escaping the stress.

The thinking mind thinks in the present moment, but the thinking process itself focuses our attention on past experiences and future goals. This is necessary for effective information gathering, planning, and decision-making. However, once thinking is finished and we decide to take action, we need to position the mind as the observer. The mind observes the body while it’s engaged in the stressful situation. We suffer mentally and lose mental power if we allow the mind to think during action. The mind does this in several ways.
— Arno Ilgner

associative pain works because we do not resist it. it works because productive pain does not exist in a vacuum nor is it a singular experience.

when I am in pain I am also many other things. I may feel successful or dejected, I may feel hopeless or irradiated with pleasure. pain and pleasure co-exist. once we get past the farce that pain is to be denied, ignored, or focused on we can truly engage its lessons.

to disassociate from pain is to engage in self-loathing, self-flagellating, hardened behavior denying a true part of the experience, an inalienable part of the self. reaching for practical words in this context is useless. to deny pain or to engage in a battle with pain is a useless waste of energy and a self-loathing pursuit. to associate with the productive pain of endurance is an acceptance of experience.

accepting my pain often cascades into my enlightenment to a new spectrum of experience, deeper shades of my practice. the pain is part of me and it takes a certain gentleness to accept. I am my pleasure and pain at once. if we can soften, approach our pain with vulnerable familiarity it won't stop hurting but we will stop wasting energy rejecting it. pain can be befriended. my pain is now a great teacher, yet another source of information to me as I conduct mountain movement.

my pain refines me.