Back to Fitness: Endurance

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Endurance: The ability to do something difficult for a long time. The ability to deal with pain or suffering that continues for a long time. The quality of continuing for a long time. 

By John Andersen

John Andersen finishing the Bighorn Wild and Scenic 100-Mile Trail Run
John Andersen finishing the Bighorn Wild and Scenic 100-Mile Trail Run

Earlier this summer, on a warm, sunny June afternoon, I sat along the banks of the Tongue River in Dayton, Wyoming, feeling completely overwhelmed. The following day, I was going to start, and hopefully complete, the Bighorn Wild and Scenic 100-Mile Trail Run through the rugged Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming. The race finishes in Scott Bicentennial Park in Dayton, along the banks of the Tongue river. This was my first attempt at the 100-mile distance and we had some free time the day before the race and thought we’d visit the finish area.

The park was empty, but the finish line arch and banner were already set up. As I sat and stared at that finish line, it was simply overwhelming to consider the physical and mental effort that would be required to get me through 100 miles of trails in the wild and unknown mountains.

Could I even finish? Would my body break? Would I stop being able to hold food down?  Would I just get tired and not care any more? Would I have the endurance required, both physically and mentally, to finish? These were all real fears that coursed through my head that day and gave me a healthy dose of doubt and some pretty humble expectations of myself.

For some perspective, I can recall when I signed up for my first Charlottesville 10-Miler.  The most I had ever run prior to that was 6 miles, and that was years earlier, and that hurt! I signed up for the 10-miler because I was in a place in my life where I felt like I needed to increase my fitness and break out of my routine of minimal physical exercise and definitely no scheduled time for fitness.

Ten miles then seemed like 100 miles to me this summer. It seemed like forever. It seemed like a distance that “other” people ran, that “runners” ran. How the heck was I going to work up to that?! I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I figured I needed to get into shape and I had better start now. We had just had a child, and I wanted to be an active father, one that was not limited physically, even when trying to keep up with him 18 years down the road.

Training for that 10-miler was tough. Getting your body to get used to running 3-5 miles at a time is the toughest transition in all of running. It just doesn’t really feel good most of the time! That combined with a lack of good gear and inexperience made for some tough training times.

But I was committed to my goal, and I tried not to get discouraged, and just took it one breath at a time, one step at a time. And I gained endurance.

I finished the 10-miler with a feeling of elation. Not only had I finished that distance that seemed so unattainable just months prior, but I had also been transformed through the process of training. It wasn’t so much, “Hooray, I finished the 10-miler!”, it was more like “Of course I finished the 10-miler, I just finished four months of training!”

That feeling, of transformation, of completing a daunting physical challenge by just putting in the work, was quite motivating for more of the same. Over the past 10 years, the challenges have grown, and thus the confidence in facing challenges has also grown.

All of which led me to the banks of the Tongue River, about to take on something that seems downright unattainable. But only in these past 10 years have I learned that attainable, or unattainable, is truly a mindset, not a genetic gift.

Here in this Back to Fitness column, I am not suggesting that everyone needs to go out and run the Charlottesville 10-miler and beyond. However, I am making a case for challenging yourselves with physical challenges of endurance, relative to where you are in your fitness.

The beauty of endurance, is that it is something that you earn, and that you can improve over time. By committing to a physical goal, you are taking daily mental steps to improve your overall endurance, both physical and mental.

Think about endurance in our daily lives for a minute. Ever show up to work overwhelmed, just sitting in your car knowing what a hard day lies ahead? What about standing in your kitchen, feeling completely overwhelmed by all of the tasks that you are so behind on. Or perhaps just feeling overwhelmed about a relationship, not knowing how long you can keep hanging on.

Challenging ourselves to expand our physical endurance, in my opinion, absolutely teaches us endurance in our daily lives. When we have faced difficulty, fatigue, disappointment, and pain in sport, we will be more prepared when we face these things in real life.

We were so fortunate to have Jennifer Pharr Davis come and do a talk at Crozet Running one evening this past winter. Several years ago, Jennifer broke the speed record for traveling the entire 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, man or woman. It was her third time hiking the trail.  Reading her books and listening to her talk, you can easily get the sense of exactly how difficult it must have been to work so hard with so little sleep, day after day, for 46 days.  And after being so incredibly exhausted, injured, and beat up after just her first week, how on earth did she find the endurance to carry on? The answer, she shared, was “one step at a time.” Don’t quit. Just take one step at a time.

So how is your endurance, physically and mentally? Remember, this is something you can grow and gaining endurance is confidence inspiring. There are so many great endurance challenges to be had—your first 10k, your first long cycling ride, your first section hike of the AT… the opportunities around here are endless. All you need is the perseverance to take it one step at a time.

Editor’s Note: The 12th annual Bill Steers Men’s Four Miler, hosted by the University of Virginia Department of Urology and the Charlottesville Track Club is November 6 at 7:30 a.m. The race goes through the U.Va. grounds and finishes on the fifty yard line of Scott Stadium. Runners and walkers of all ages and abilities are welcome. There is a free training program as well. Visit www.mensfourmiler.com.

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