Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Hurt Cap

Remember in grade school when the teacher was about to present something extra attention worthy or hand out a test she (they were all “she” back then) would tell you to put on your thinking cap? In my mind, I always envisioned the thinking cap like one of those old fashioned leather football helmets. For whatever reason, blind obedience or not knowing any better, I would follow the teacher’s command, put on that ridiculous thinking cap on and even take the time to fasten it under my chin.

Because learning can be a very hazardous endeavor, safety first.


The thinking cap was symbolic for getting yourself prepared for something hard. I suppose the logic behind it was that because it was hard, the cap would be your cue to engage yourself to think – hard – and do your best.

Either that or protect yourself when you beat your head against the desk because you had no idea how to find the circumference of an isosceles triangle.

(Yes, I got a D in geometry)

As I get back into training, I’m realizing how beneficial it might be to have a hurt cap. To prepare myself for the hurt because even though I experienced a variety of pain while being pregnant and at one time – many moons ago – I was an athlete who could hurt very well – none of that compares to the pain and hurt felt in training after a very long break.

Speaking of pain and hurt: one thing that is evident right now is my lack of strength. Now, I strength trained twice a week throughout pregnancy but after being cut open, sewed back together and then spending over 4 weeks doing next to nothing but sitting hunched in a chair feeding a newborn – well, to say that I’m a little tight and weak would be putting it lightly. Knowing that core strength is fundamental to performance and injury prevention, I wasn’t going to mess around. So, I met with Jen’s personal trainer the other day. I know a lot about strength but nothing replaces the knowledge and objectivity of an outside source who specializes in strength.

We met for an hour long assessment where I set baselines for strength-related exercises. I’ve heard a little about this assessment from Jen but figured how bad could it be. Even if it was really bad, I have no problem with expecting myself to completely suck at everything right now. I have an excuse, right? And, the worse I test, the more progress I’ll make the better I’ll feel about myself, right?

Wrong. You see, I cannot go into a test – ANY test – without that little competitive spark lighting up to a full-blown fire alarm YOU ARE GOING DOWN BITCH fire.

(which is why I confessed early on to Kate that my goal in being there was to break every one of Jen’s records)

But as much as I want to bust records apart, I simply cannot right now. I’m just not that strong. It’s hard to accept this weaker version of myself but at the same time I can’t ignore it. So, I decided to bring in the big guns. Enter Kate.

Kate started by just looking at me. And honestly right now just looking at me you can tell a lot. My shoulders are hunched from nursing, my hip flexors are tight from the incisions being pulled as it heals, my back is swayed from being heavily front loaded for so many months. My hip flexors are doing all of the work because I forgot how to activate my lower core. My deltoids are getting overloaded because my lats are so weak. I’m a mess.

(but a HOT mess because I’m still sporting a bigger chest than usual though I will say that they have significantly shrunk at this point and I’m not complaining)

Without giving away all of her secrets, there were about a dozen tests that I was put through. I will touch upon the more fun (painful) ones. Let’s start with plank. COME ON! Who can’t do a plank. I don’t even do planks they are so…boring. (YES I AM GOING TO EAT MY WORDS ONCE A WEEK FOR THE NEXT 6 MONTHS) She starts by telling me that the record for holding plank is 8 minutes. By a 50-year old woman.

The first part doesn’t surprise me. Doesn’t seem all that hard just quite boring. What do you think about while holding plank for 8 minutes (this from someone that has done Ironman twice!?!)? The second part she should have just left out. It was like adding insult to injury. As in, if you can’ t do this for 8 minutes, you’ve been beaten by a 50-year old woman

(which makes me laugh considering at Kona in 2006 I did not catch Laura Sopheia, a then 50+ year old woman until mile 24 of the run…I know some pretty hard core F50-54s)

All you need to know is that I did not hold plank – that would be proper plank - for 8 minutes. I got halfway before my glutes started screaming at me then shaking then just dying on the spot.

Several other tests pass painfully (and yes I even had one “fail” – I can do NO pull ups right now but who can blame me, I’m about 100 pounds ELF and 20+ pounds milk) and then we get to the wall sit. Oh that. Jen talked about how she held it for something like 20 minutes. As I got into it, I realized I was deciding how long I could hold it rather than just holding it. I thought to myself I’ll hold it x minutes. And then reassess. I’m not sure if I was goal setting or selling myself short. But all I know is that when Kate read a time that was within 15 seconds of my time goal, I said to myself – hold it 15 more seconds then you’re done. Yes, I was shaking but was I really done? I mean, is that as far as I could physically go or mentally go or could both demand more….

When I finally gave up (23 seconds after my “goal” time), she told me that I got within 17 seconds of the 4th place record on the wall. At that moment I thought two things – maybe carrying around all that weight in pregnancy did help. And, if I had known I was that close to a record I would have held it longer. Which made me think even more – if I had more to give, WHY DID I GIVE UP?

I thought about it on the way home and came to this conclusion: it’s just like Chris said.

A few weeks ago, Chris told me the hardest part about getting back into sport would be learning how to hurt again. The kind of hurt it takes to breakthrough in performance, to get to that next level. There is pain, but then there is hurt. Many athletes can handle pain. Very few can push past hurt. Those who do are at the top of their game. As I’ve gotten back into training again and in doing these tests, it became clear to me:

I’ve forgotten how to hurt.

How do some athletes grit their teeth past the hurt while others give up before they are even close? I thought about the tests Kate just put me through. How my performance was so closely linked to the times she was reading off her watch or to what I thought I should be doing. Which made me think one should be very careful when setting goals. So much of performance has to do with what we think we can do.

I remembered then that the mind is a muscle that needs to be activated just like any other muscle in the body. If you want to perform well, you need to strengthen the weak muscles by first learning to activate them. The mind is the same. I realized that to push past my expectations right now, I need to not only reset them but to learn how to hurt again. In other words, go to that place. Put on my hurt cap and get my mind ready to accept the suffering.

Yes, I’m weak physically in many areas but who would have thought that a series of simple tests would reveal to me that my mind is also a weakness. After all, I spent years pushing myself to PRs in races based on what I always felt was not physical talent – just mental toughness and a superior nutrition plan. If I’m going to succeed again, I need to reconnect with that. It’s in there, it’s just in hiding.

How apropos that the day after this discovery I had a swim test. 10 x 100 on 10 seconds rest. True, there are many swim tests out there – but this one, to me, is the gold standard. You can either do it on 10 seconds rest or not.

And, in 10 seconds, there is no room for crying.

I walked into the pool, reached into my swim bag and good thing I found it – the hurt cap. No, it wasn’t an old leather football helmet (could you imagine the drag?), it was some swim cap that my husband gave me because last week I had a string of head-up-my-assed-ness-moments where I forgot a major piece of swim equipment every single day.

(this explains why I spent 3200 yards wearing children's goggles that I found in the pool office that leaked after anything over 150)

I warmed up and before I knew it, I arrived at the test. I was excited. And fearless. When I was planking the other day, I realized that I was not incapable, I was afraid of hurting. I gave up before I even started because I knew it would hurt. I told myself I would handle the hurt for x minutes. When I hit that time, I was done. Today I stood at the end of the lane fearless. I don’t care what the clock says, I’m just going to make each 100 hurt. Times 10. I cleared my mind, waited for the top to roll around and right before it did I said to myself:

This is going to hurt.


The moment I pushed off the wall, there was a quiet that I heard - this is why I love swimming. Underwater is one of the most peaceful places in the world. Everything seems to stop – time, noise, chatter. I see the pace when I come in, I think to myself it seems fast but tell myself to just keep making it hurt. Don’t assess – yet. By number 3 I think to myself – this is a really long test. By number 5 I find a rhythm. And by number 7 I tell myself the next two will hurt the worst – just push through it and get to the last 2 where you can give it all you have left. Number 9 is evil – you’re almost done but not quite yet. And number 10 puts me right where I want to be – close to barf.

I hit the wall, check the clock, do the math in my head.

I was prepared for the worst. In pregnancy, I lost about 30 seconds per 100 by the end. I was swimming my 100s in slower than intervals I used to send off on. Yikes! I knew the test pace might be ugly. But instead what I found was that my pace was only two seconds slower than my best test pace.

Two seconds.

It didn’t make sense to me. No speedwork. Didn’t even swim for 6 weeks. Maybe it’s the personal flotation devices (two of them) on my chest. Or the extra body weight. Or maybe I just remembered how to go so hard that it hurts. Bad. Maybe there is something to just believing in yourself and letting the mind take you there.

I walked away from the test remembering that hurting is hard. It takes a lot of focus. It takes a lot of just pushing past yourself and quieting the you can’t do this, you don’t have to do this voices in your head. It isn't easy and takes a lot of practice. Sometimes it feels draining but that's where you have to go if you're going to make a difference in your performance.

The next few months will be a series of tests, workouts and exercises in learning how to hurt all over again. All I can think to say is...OY! But I guess I should just do what the teacher says; put on my hurt cap, maybe even the big girl pants, buck up, nut up, you know, all those things that make me remember that this isn’t supposed to be easy.

But then again, no one ever said it would be.

13 comments:

Wes said...

ah, yes... the evil ELF-ish swim test :-) I remember those with such fondness.

The problem for us new-er-ish age group athletes is knowing when pushing past the hurt is a breakthrough, and when its just flat out stupid.

nothing like taking a swim test on fresh muscles, and you've probably unlearned a few things over the past 11 months or so.

Nice work!

GoBigGreen said...

You are SO lucky you have a Trainer Kate to go to, LOVE IT. I know you likely wish she wasnt near you ( haha) but know you are lucky to have her:) And JH gave me a swim wko and at the end she said " Swim like Miranda C, someone your size, who can get alot of power." I was like WTH? I thought MC was like 5 feet tall?
JH said "oops i wrote that wko for Liz." ha love it.
Glad you are back in the pain cave hat locker zone...

Molly said...

Oh yes, the hurt cap. I know that one well...I can usually tell which workouts I have to put it on for, to mentally prepare to endure and push through the pain. It IS all worth it though!!!

E.L.F. said...

Wes, good point. If training is structured properly, you should arrive at your breakthrough/key workouts capable of pushing through without the risk of it being stupid. Pushing through every workout every day is stupid, that's where athletes cross the line. Keep the easy, easy & the hard, hard.

Andrea said...

Thank you for this - "I realized that I was not incapable, I was afraid of hurting".

This is SO true - for me, for many of us. I know that's what I'm thinking at the start of my swim tests.

But that was then ... this is now. I'm not going to THINK that way anymore. :)

Jennifer Harrison said...

This post made me smile.
I think I laughed for 10 minutes after I got your email, "Jen, guess how many pull ups I did, bitch??"

I was thinking, Elizabeth FOR SURE beat my pull up #, she is like 50 lbs....and strong.

(but I forgot her D boobs)..

And her response, "NONE."

Best exchange ever.

You'll be beating me in no time....but there are some (LAT ones) I am not sure....so that is the carrot, haha.

But, isn't it true - esp with the wall sit (which I do not do anymore thankfully) that it really doesn't hurt - it is just a long time. I mean minutes in plank and wall sit - I am finally like, "I need to do another test."

Once you hold the record you get a pass. The only catch is the records are for male/female - NO separation - even in the male dominated strength stuff...which, I am actively protesting with them.

Kate LOVES me. (not). :) She'll love you (not).

JV said...

Love this post! Love Kate! Game on for all those records up there girls :) LOL

TriGirl Kate O said...

It's the "you don't have to do this" voice that gets me these days. Maybe I should sign up for a race or something...

Very timely and well written (as usual). Welcome back to the land of the hurting.

ADC said...

I love, love, love this post. Thank you.

Alicia Parr said...

I've discovered that A race performance is less than half about actual fitness and more about the willingness & fight to go into the hurt box when it matters most.

For me, post pregnancy, I wasn't in any hurry to get there. Labor was pretty crazy tough for me. Yet, when it was time, I went. I got there in small increments over time.

Right now, with A races on the near horizon, I'm hoping I can live up to the standards I set a year ago.

E.L.F. said...

Alicia, that is very, VERY well put.

fitforreallife.com said...

Let me just say, as Trainer Kate, and having read this blog for quite a while, I was very curious to see just what would walk in when Miss ELF was scheduled to see me. Would she be as intense as she seems on her blog? Would she laugh at the thought of an 8 min plank & then knock out a 20min plank?? :-) And I was not disappointed! She brings every ounce of the intensity she writes about.

I'm looking forward to some punishing workouts w/ you! & yes, you'll probably have wierd idiosyncracies just like Jen & I will tease you mercilessly when I discover them!!

ironmomma.com said...

YEAH! The match has been struck on the box.... and the fire has been lit! AWESOME!