Monday, April 23, 2012

Power & Peril Of Mental Strength

"Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired in the morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired." 

—George S. Patton, U.S. Army General, 1912 Olympian

I had an interesting chat via Whatsapp with a friend today about a mutual friend of ours who ran the full marathon (42.2km) in Bali yesterday morning. She registered for that race a couple of months ago and was supposed to have trained according to a schedule comprising weekday runs, as well as long runs on the weekends. But as usually is the case with most people, she was unable to actually do very many of the long runs. Then a week before the race, she made the effort to run a 21km long run, perhaps in the hope that that could help her a bit in Bali.

Incidentally, we had something in the order of a debate in facebook recently when someone posted a quote:

"There's no magic to running far or climbing Everest. Endurance is mental strength. It's all about heart."

—Bear Grylls, Adventurer & Host of Man vs Wild

We tend to see quotes such as the above all the time in sports magazines, propounding the famous notion that endurance is all about mental strength. And of course many people are greatly affected and fully convinced that that is the whole truth about endurance sports. I consider myself a little of a nutcase in the way how I tend to push my body to the very extreme when it comes to endurance sports. I have done a number of marathons and more recently ultra trail marathons of 100km; and although I'm not disputing the power of the mental strength to conquer all these races, I'm not very happy with most of these quotes. In particular, I don't like the over emphasis of the mental strength, especially with that word "all", because quite frankly, endurance sports is not all about mental strength and the heart. A lot of the achievements come from hard training too. In fact, a lot of hard training!

However, it has been noted by a friend that "it goes without saying" (that training is required). I'm not very sure about that "it goes without saying", really. There are many people out there who are so lack of training and ill-prepared for their endurance races, but have total faith in their mental strength.

Such was the case of my friend in Bali—apparently, she ran for 23km when her legs failed her. She ended up in an ambulance and was advised to withdraw from the race. But she fought on; after spending about half an hour, she started walking again and finally finished her race in almost 7 hours. So it was an extremely tough race for her; and the mental strength saw her through. It will be an achievement that she will undoubtedly remember for a long time. When her body was unwilling, her mental strength helped her to fight on till the end—even without proper training, because after all, it's all about mental strength.

I'm a fighter too; and I very rarely surrender when I start a race. But the only difference is that I make sure that I prepare myself. Otherwise, I'd rather not show up for the race all together. There is really no shame to withdraw from the race, because, to me, that is a smarter thing to do.

Some people, apparently with very strong mental strength, have been able to push their bodies extremely far, in fact beyond the breaking point, at the expense of losing their lives in the end. Most of us are not competitive to that extent, of course, but sometimes we are unable to tell how much more stress our bodies can endure.

My view is that don't take mental strength for granted—endurance sports is not all about mental strength. In spite of the quote above, learn to listen to your body too. If you fail this once to conquer a marathon or an ultra marathon, there is always next time to redeem yourself. But if you die this time, it will only happen this once.


Juin Yi Ng said...

Came across this in the local newspaper. There were originally two races this year: April and August. However the August race has been cancelled. Are you participating in this? 200km over 5 days.

Cornelius said...

Hi Juin Yi Ng,

I'm afraid I'm not doing the 200km race. To join that race, I would need to sacrifice about a week from work. I don't think I have the luxury of that much time away from work.

However, I will be doing the TMBT again this year on 15th September. Immediately after I finished the first TMBT last year, I actually made up my mind to not do it again this year. But then the organiser announced that he will change the route for this second TMBT, and will reduce the time limit to 30 hours only, as opposed to 36 hours in the first TMBT. I couldn't resist the challenge, so I registered again!

Anonymous said...

r u suggesting that ur fren shouldnt have finish her race in Bali?

Cornelius said...

Hi Anonymous friend,

Not at all. I'm sure she knew what she's doing. She used to be an athlete in school many years ago. The truth is that I'm a sucker when it comes to things such as these. I can't help but admire people who fight hard; and fight till the end! And I fight hard too. I try to minimise the risk of suddenly dropping dead by going for my annual stress test; preparing for the feat by training properly etc. But at the end of the day, y'know, I can only do so much. If I'm gonna die, at least I've done my part. The rest is in God's hands.