Back to Fitness: If Your Legs Are Shot…

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John Andersen

If your legs are shot, your mind can carry you to the finish.
If your mind is shot, your legs will not carry you anywhere.

-Lazarus Lake, race director of The Barkley Marathons

I read this quote a few weeks ago and was taken by how much far-reaching wisdom it contains. As an endurance athlete, I can attest to the truth of this statement for those of us trying to tackle longer endurance events. But what got into my head was just how much truth is held here that is relevant to people starting out in a fitness routine. Pretty much everything we are trying to do with our fitness and health, whether you are a novice or an expert, both begins and ends with your mind.  

The thing is, you’ve got to experience it. You’ve got to get to a place where your legs were shot, but your mind carried you to the finish to believe that you actually can do more than you think. You’ve got to get to a place where your mind is shot and realize later that you could’ve given more if you didn’t quit.  

So for this month’s column, I’m going to tease out some undercurrents from Laz’s quote.

Believe (even if it seems embarrassing or unlikely).

All your goals start and end with your mind. You don’t need a fitness plan, a FitBit, or even new shoes. You need a committed mind. How committed can you be if you don’t actually believe that you can accomplish what you are setting out to do? “I want to run two miles without stopping.”  “I want to run a 3:30 marathon.”  These two goals take the exact same amount of belief to be accomplished by the goal setter.  

Having faith is tough. You are making yourself vulnerable to criticism, embarrassment, and disappointment, even if just from yourself. If I may offer some advice: never, ever be embarrassed to believe you can do something, no matter how farfetched it may seem to you or your friends. I LOVE hearing people’s big goals, and I believe that if they are committed and they believe they can, then well, they can!  

I can’t tell you how many people I hear say, “I could never do that,” referring to some sort of exercise or endurance event. It drives me crazy because I know that person’s mind is severely limiting their potential, for no reason other than to keep safe. But I hear the same thing from advanced endurance athletes as well. “I could never do that.” Well, not if you say that!

Rule #1 – Believe!

Get yourself into a pickle every once in a while

Races, competitions, group runs/rides, adventures–there are so many options available for you to get yourself in a bit over your head from time to time. It is great when you are trying to increase your fitness for everything to go smoothly, and for you to progress in a generally upward trajectory.  And yes, generally, if you do the work, you will get better, whatever your goal is. But how can you test your mind?    

I argue that there are no better times for personal growth than hard times. And in our fitness journeys, we kind of need to create these for ourselves. Most recently, I was competing in the Massanutten Mountain 100-mile trail race a few months ago, and I was in the lead all the way until mile 88, when I blew up. It was a hot day and late in the race my stomach went bad, so I wasn’t able to eat or drink anything without terrible nausea. I sat down in a chair and felt terrible; I was pretty sure I was going to have to drop from the race. The problem was, I was at an aid station in the middle of the woods and there wasn’t anyone who could drive me back to my car. I was in a pickle!  I ended up sleeping in a cot for several hours and somehow finally got out of the cot and death-marched the last 12 miles to the finish, one of the hardest and most miserable things I have ever done in a race. However, now when I look back at that experience, I feel like I unlocked a new level of what is possible and I look forward to the growth that is going to happen from that difficult finish.

Your pickle doesn’t have to be so extreme, but you need to get yourself into one from time to time.  There really is nothing like the feeling you get from somehow finishing something that went bad mid-way through.  

Rule #2 – Don’t play it safe all the time. Take risks and grow from failure.

Remember the quote!

If your legs are shot, your mind can take you to the finish.  

If your mind is shot, your legs will not carry you anywhere. 

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