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FORTITUDE: THE TRUE TEST OF STRENGTH

By Saravana Sekar
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My focus was fading, breathing heavy, and fighting the urge for my legs to crumble underneath me. Battling dehydration, each step became more grueling than the last, with the finish nowhere in sight.

Why am I doing this? What am I trying to prove? I feel like shit. I should just stop here.

No… not yet

FORTITUDE, NOUN; MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL STRENGTH IN FACING DIFFICULTY, ADVERSITY, DANGER, OR TEMPTATION COURAGEOUSLY

I am a huge believer in extending your physical activity to obtain the maximal benefits possible. Meaning that unless your main objective is to run a marathon or to compete in a powerlifting competition, you should perform a variety of types of activity. Personally, I love bodyweight control, kettlebells, powerlifts, speed training, endurance running, swimming, biking, and really any other sport. However, over the past year or two, my interest in trail running has really begun to grow. There is an unbelievable connection felt being in an animals true element, when the rough terrain is gripped beneath your feet with no real world distractions for miles on end.

About a week ago, after a nice 5k through the trails, my friend Brian and I were sipping on an epic super-greens shake when we began talking about Cameron Hanes.

For any of you unfamiliar with Cameron, he has an unbelievable passion for outdoor sport. Sponsored by under armour, he is a professional bowhunting athlete, and epic outdoor endurance competitor. Racking up races like wilderness marathons, and the BigHorn 100 mile run, he has had amazing success blazing the trails. Most recently, he completed the BigFoot 200, a 200 mile trail race in Washington, in 8th place with a time of 78 hours, 56 minutes. For many it would take weeks and weeks to rack up that many miles, yet he was able to complete it in just over 3 days’ time, with only 3 hours of sleep total! Aside from training seemingly absurd amounts, it is an extremely mental rollercoaster where your body is on the verge of shutting down over and over again, only to keep on hammering.

Well, once we got on a discussion on his ability to smash that 200 mile race, we had an epic idea train to run a half marathon through the trails by October. Hell yes! There was no doubt we would let that plan slip through the cracks, so we got down to business. I ordered my new Salomon SpeedCross trail shoes, planned for 2 days per week of distance runs, and to keep to our regular training schedule to keep some mass. Our first run this past Tuesday went great. We did a sub-max effort trial of 2.9 miles at a great pace of just under 7:55 (side note: for those of you who have never trail ran, the elevation and ever changing terrain brings an unbelievable focus and variation demand when compared to flat road running, give it a shot). Feeling super ambitious, we set the stage for yesterday to be our test; 8 miles with some gnarly elevation…time to get serious.

I kept at my usual training for the week, and rested Thursday up until it was time for the run. We got home from work, mapped the route out prior, and prepared to set sail just after 6pm. From his house in Pawling, we would travel up to a section of the AT trail up to Cat Rocks, then continue along to the far end of Nuclear Lake. Knowing the end was a great deal away; we strapped in, gripped the earth beneath us, and set sail for the long haul. The first mile was nice and flat on soft ground to lead up to the trailhead, boosting our confidence and a great warm-up for the meat and potatoes of the trip. As time went on, the elevation got steeper, my legs became slowly heavier and heavier, my focus began to drift. I kept checking my watch to slowly see our pace slowing as the climb became great, only to allow a tidal wave of thoughts enter my head.

I have to pick it up. I can do better. My chest feels so heavy. I should have been more prepared.

A few times I had to slow because my toes kept catching on rocks, roots and stumps, mostly so I didn’t fall flat on my face, but I had to keep pushing. Brian has a greater endurance capacity than I do, so his lead set the bar for me to keep going and not let him pull ahead. Sweat pouring down my back, a burning sensation from head to toe, with my heart rate climbing up above 180bpm, my body needed to rest. The body will ALWAYS want to give out before the mind, so I told myself “fuck no, keep climbing”. About a mile further, we came to a point where rather than taking the trail the whole way up, an off course detour was a way cooler option, and brought us to the rock face of Cat Rocks.

The peak seemed so close, so we began scaling up the rocks. With every move I made, my steadiness seemed to drop. I was losing confidence in my decision making and strength to keep glued where I stood. Halfway up I did exactly what you should never do; looked down and slightly lost composure. Losing the ability to find a hand hold, turning my hips away from the wall, I panicked that my shoulder wouldn’t be able to take on the weight of my body yet, I felt stranded. After a minute of saying “I cant’s”, my ass found its way to the top for a much needed mental pit stop before the second leg of the trip.

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After a light snack and refocus, the sails were set for the home stretch of the journey. This was a new route for both of us, so the expectations of what lied ahead were entirely a mystery. Thankfully, it was mostly downhill, but that demanded staying sharp and focused. The last thing you would want is to get caught in a 30yd stretch of rocks and trees over the trail before you lost footing, because then you’re really in a bad spot; no cell service, miles from the nearest road or house, and no first aid supplies. With each growing step breathing became heavier, and the sunlight and water were both becoming sparse. The tree cover was so dense that our eyes had to constantly readjust to the darkness we became engulfed in. It was only another half mile until we had to stop and break out the headlamps for the last leg of the journey.

Only 2 miles left. Empty the tank, let’s finish strong. Win this battle. You can rest later, do the work now.

Our pace had tremendously picked up at this point. It could have been the fact we knew the end was near, or that we wanted to put whatever ounce of fuel we had left on the trail to blaze to the finish. My body felt like a well-oiled machine, feeling the synchronization of my upper and lower limbs with my heavy breath. Not before long, we saw a glimpse of brightness and the sound of cars passing; this is it. Barreling over fallen trees and vaulting rocks, our eyes remained fixed on that clearing in the distance, not letting any obstacle stand in the way. Let me tell you, I was drained more mentally than physically once that last stride was completed. Every step taken brought my inner voices reason to call it quits, but the more rejection they faced, the softer their voice became.

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Become stronger each stride. Tune out my senses. Win this war

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Prior to this trip, by no means would I considered myself the most conditioned or the strongest. But I did not do as well as I originally thought I would have. Maybe it was some overconfidence? Unpreparedness? Whatever the term may be, I learned that growth is exponential, the search for greatness is never ending. This goes for achieving levels of fitness, working on passionate relationships, flourishing professionally, and within our own conscious being. Our minds are the most powerful tool we own, and in order to keep it working its best, we must too exercise our ability to fight through pain, fatigue, doubt, and any other reason you try and convince yourself it is ‘OK’ to quit.

The ego can be our prime motivation as well as our greatest enemy. It is able to bring us a great deal of confidence and doubt; pleasure and pain; success and failure. This trip was the perfect challenge for me to look deeper at my own self, and also was a nice reality check on my current fitness and mental status; this message can go out to you as well.

No matter who you might be on this earth, it is important to recognize you aren’t superman, nobody is. If you haven’t realized it by now, sorry to burst your bubble. There is not a single person who is able to face any challenge head on with a full heart of courage, passion, strength, and mental grit; there’s always a weak spot in the armor. For each of us, that situation may not come up too often, potentially shielding us from what we fail to prepare for. We all have our own weak spot, wherever it may fall. It can be through subtle insecurities holding us back from career success; Fears limiting our ability to explore challenge; Doubts turning into negative emotion to worn on your shirt sleeve. We all have something that can rear its ugly head to inhibit us from accomplishing something worth dedicating time into. I realized that no matter how hard you can push yourself in training, we are not bulletproof in our performance. I’m a big proponent in the belief ‘get comfortable being uncomfortable’. In order to grow, there has to be a fight, a struggle, a challenge; some driving force to be used as a bridge from the present into the next stage of whatever you are striving to accomplish. There is always that carrot in front of us, pushing us to work harder, to keep hammering, and to always allow the mind to remain stronger than our physical being; that is how success breeds itself.

Giving you Strength and Good Health,

Coach Sean