The author finding his rhythm and thoroughly enjoying the process. Photo: Susan Barrows

It has taken years for my stubborn mentality to recognize the following:  a plan without some form of consistent accountability is wasteful. This past January, I completed my first 50K trail race. For three years I attempted to complete an ultra but injury, self-sabotage, and fear had kept me from getting to the start line.

This adventure goal of a 50K trail race had been on my agenda since 2015. I label it an adventure goal because it wasn’t tied to a specific race, rather the desire to move through nature for a distance I had yet to attempt. Unfortunately, for most of that time I’d been burdened with a plantar fasciitis issue in my left foot, one that flares up as I add volume to my weekly mileage. Despite the foot issue, I had signed up for two previous ultras – the Rut 50K in 2016 and The North Face 50K in 2017. I ramped up mileage for many months leading into those races. As a result, the plantar fasciitis would flare up to the point where I couldn’t walk between runs. I would then convince myself, perhaps rightfully so, that I was doing more harm than good and throw in the towel. I didn’t make it to either of those events.

Self-sabotage would play into my training when the doubt of being able to finish 31 miles began to surface. This doubt contributed to poor eating habits and skipping key training days. I got good at creating excuses not to properly prepare myself for the looming event. I also chose events that required considerable travel, as I considered that part of the adventure. This also meant I chose options that were conveniently, financially restrictive. This added another layer of potential excuses as traveling was expensive and required time off from work and other commitments. These events I picked required a long lead time, and participants must sign up typically nine months in advance making it difficult to know what the circumstances may be at the time of racing. I question now if I chose these races far off in the future and far from where I resided, in order to create an opportunity to pull out. Had I chosen events in my backyard (which there are plenty) I would have no choice but to face my doubts and fears.

Which leads me to the biggest factor in not making it to the start line:  fear. Fear of not finishing, fear of my inability to meet my expectations, and perhaps mostly, fear I wouldn’t perform to the same ability as my peers and family. Regardless of how my psyche was hijacking my endurance goals, I still very much wanted to get to a race start and see what I could do. I had to develop a different strategy.

My new strategy required an adjusted mentality. I needed to stop focusing on the finish line and instead concern myself with the initial objective of getting to the start line. Step one was to grasp that the fear of failing was keeping me from beginning.  I needed only to get to the start line, and then I’d deal with the finish after objective one was accomplished. So I changed some things up.

First, I picked a race that was less than three months out rather than repeating the daunting timeline of nine plus months. I had been running heavily in the summer to prepare for The North Face race, but had since decreased volume to allow the inflammation in my heal to subside. I had the base miles and the aerobic fitness, so I felt ramping up mileage for 8-10 weeks then tapering into a race might serve as a better strategy considering my injury history. With this plan I had less time to stress and come up with excuses. I also reduced the total volume of miles on my foot leading into the event.

Second, I chose a more realistic race. I was traveling through the western states and had planned on driving into Texas to visit my father, so I chose the Bandera 50K which was on my route. After committing to the drive, I would literally be driving past the course.

Third, I ran no more than 50 miles per week. Not only would the total volume decrease due to a shorter lead time into the race, but I’d reduce my weekly volume to keep the inflammation manageable. I knew heavy mileage would render me unable to race, and I had to compromise preparedness in order to get to the start.

Fourth, I enlisted my partner, Susan, as a coach. More importantly, she kept me accountable for the plan we came up with and getting me to the start line. Having someone holding me accountable removed many of the temptations to self-sabotage. She has had success in ultramarathons but couldn’t run with me because of her own injury. Knowing she would be sitting on the sidelines yet still fully supporting my goal, gave me the additional motivation I needed to run this race. “I can race so I will, no excuses,” I’d repeatedly tell myself. I didn’t want her to experience my failure, and that trumped my fears.

I made it to the race (if I hadn’t, this article would kinda suck). It didn’t go as ideally as I had hoped, but honestly it went as expected. My foot bothered me, cramping set in at around mile 19, and the last 8 miles were very difficult. That’s what I signed up for though – the struggle, and overcoming the struggle. Voluntarily putting myself through discomfort and pain unlocks an odd and sadistic joy within me.

What I recognize upon reflection, is that accountability has been the most determinant factor in my success. Being accountable to someone other than myself reduces mental deliberation and struggle. While injury creates barriers and physical pain, the mental interpretation of the situation is typically what causes my failure. When accountable only to myself I tend to find excuses – good or bad, reasonable or unreasonable – to ill prepare or sabotage. However, anytime I have been accountable to someone else I find a way to get it done. This can be said of my athletic pursuits, business pursuits, and even personal projects. The start line has often been my nemesis. I’ve always found the finish, but only if I get to the start. Accountability has had several forms over the years, but it has been a component to every success I’ve experienced.

Accountability took the shape of a coach that held me to a specific training program when I did Ironman Canada. I had to check in for a block of workouts and account for how training had gone during the prior block. Accountability was built in when signing up for Ironman 70.3 Boise with my father and brothers. Though we didn’t train together, I knew I was expected at the start line. I committed to my training because they also committed, and would be toeing the line alongside me. Accountability was in the form of training partners that I rode with several times a week when I dabbled in mountain bike events. When I ride with them, training didn’t feel like training. Fitness and race preparedness came via camaraderie and common interest. And lastly, accountability came in when giving another person control over the details, thus reducing the factors that contributed to my stress and sabotage.

A specific plan is critical, but if you’re not answerable to anyone you may struggle getting the most from it. I would state having accountability without a detailed blueprint can be just as detrimental to success. The two need to be intertwined to experience the desired outcome. You can devise a plan by finding one already outlined on the internet, reading a book, crafting something of your own, or hiring a coach. Accountability, on the other hand, must go beyond an event entry on the calendar. Enlist friends or family to race with, find a group or club, or hire a coach to keep you on target and help you make wise adjustments.

Don’t let the voices in your head keep you from attempting that which you’re capable of accomplishing. Getting help and releasing control isn’t weakness. Often, the strength to release expectations and control is the determining factor for success.

 

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