Friday, November 23, 2007

The OCD Self

This afternoon I went out for a run, just a quick tenure through the UWF trails and then around campus. The late afternoon sunlight cast long shadows against the pine trees, and the breezy wind only added more chill to the already cool air. Fall had officially arrived in Pensacola, and I was doing my best to soak it all in. I deliberately ran later in the afternoon (well, partly because I was suffering from an over-indulgence of alcoholic beverages from the night before, and needed a few hours to let my stomach and head settle themselves), but mostly because I wanted to experience fall at its best. The leaves crunched under my feet, the golden sunlight shone through the misty trees, and I could hear the conversations of birds and other forest animals all around. Simply put, it was beautiful.

A perfect run.

By 4:45, the woods were rapidly growing dark, and I still wanted to run for another 10 or 15 minutes. I had already done an easy 35 minutes, but just didn't feel ready to stop. Yes, it's my off-season, so holding a specific heart rate zone or doing pieces isn't the name of the game, but running for the pure joy of it is. I carefully made my way up the sandy trail, burst through a few branches that pulled at my shirt, and made my way onto the trail next to Campus Drive. A quick check of my watch confirmed I was at 36 minutes and counting. I had one of two options: I could go out and back 5 minutes, or I could loop around Campus Drive, take a right at the stoplight, and make my way past WUWF public radio back to the car. The second option would maybe take another 15 minutes, while the first would see me back at the car a little sooner. I didn't hesitate, and went for the second. The late afternoon, early dusk was too beautiful, and I felt wonderful. My pace had been gradually increasing throughout the run, and I felt like I had finally found my stide. My body was in check, perceived exertion was fast but still felt easy, and I felt like my feet were effortlessly skimming the surface.

I swung right at the bottom of one of the big hills near the light, and made my way past soccer fields and the UWF campus police/parking enforcement. No matter how many times I run by the parking enforcement, I never seem to see any enforcers of parking. Which is great, as I've parked as close to the pool as possible when the threat of thunderstorms loom in the air. (My usual lot is near the radio station, about 200 meters beyond the pool lot. But man, oh man, 200 meters can feel like an eternity when you're sprinting for your life in a bathing suit and flip flops, while thunder booms overhead).

I quickly made my way to the end of the road and hooked up again with Campus Drive. I turned right again, and felt myself lean into the uphill section. I focused on keeping the leg turnover high (no sense in letting technique laps completely in the off season!), and really tried to make my quads support the brunt of my uphill effort. After Shelly (the wonderful massage therapist) demonstrated the difference between running up hills using your calves vs. using your quads for primary support, I've really been working on getting my quads to do the brunt of the work. It may feel more natural for the calves to extend and push in the follow through of the foot strike, but the quads are essentially the biggest muscle group in the body, and will allow a much greater work load than the calves. In Shelly's example, she showed me how the body looks climbing stairs -pushing off the toes using the calves isn't the way to go, but powering through the glutes and quads gets more bang for your buck, less effort and more power at the same time! - and the lesson stuck with me ever since.

Easing over the top of the hill, I caught a glimpse of WUWF, and lengthened my stride. Just a few minutes left of this wonderful run. The sky was rapidly growing darker, and I could feel the temperature drop from where it had been a mere 45 minutes earlier. Or perhaps it was just me: sensing the cool air and lower temperatures brought on by the sunset. Either way, I felt myself shiver involuntarily, and looked forward to the post run hot shower.

I passed the Air Force ROTC center and then the UWF digital campus sign, and then swung left into the parking lot. Finally! What a great run! I checked my watch, and then it hit me.

I was only at 48:35. I couldn't finish now, not yet.

And this, my friends, is where the Obsessive-Compulsive in me emerged. Let's face it: if you're in this sport, or just about any sport that demands execution of technique, practice, high effort, and more than a lot of devotion, chances are that you've faced the OCD beast within. Some of us are just better at quieting it than others.

What's the deal? I found my Rational Self asking. This isn't the end of the world. You're in the off-season, a chance to go easy, to relax, to go out and enjoy running just for the sake of it. No heart rate goals, no time goals, no SPECIFIC time that you have to run for. So what gives? Why do you do this to yourself? What's the point? And besides, who will know the difference anyway - in the end, what will it matter?

In spite of my inner dialogue, I couldn't find the effort to stop running. I ran down the length of the parking lot, past my car - ready and waiting to take me home - and back up the other direction towards WUWF radio. Every few seconds, I would peek at my watch, just to confirm that I hadn't yet reached the 50:00 mark. And really, what did it matter?

I didn't need to keep going, but I just couldn't stop.

Welcome to my OCD Self.

My OCD Self can be just as wonderful as she is horrible. While rowing, the OCD Self would demand constant vigilance: every stroke rowed to perfection (the alternative being to take a dip in the Mississippi, as an errant hand position or wobble of the hips could send you careening into the drink), body position perfect but relaxed, the mind always focused on the shortest course, the run of the scull, the sound of the bubbles humming under the gunwales. Through this sport, my OCD Self grew, became emboldened, and began appearing in other aspects of my training. If Coach Miriam wanted 4 X 10 minutes, I would not stop at 9:59. If I was out for a 60 minute run, ending at 59:59 wasn't an option. Slowly, while sticking to my training regiment and following my program to the T (the exception being illness, of course...), I steadily improved. I refused to cut corners, or to opt for the easy way out. The OCD Self quickly became the norm in terms of athletics, and it's been a part of me and my life ever since.

Sometimes the OCD Self can be helpful: when I play violin, I don't like to move onto another passage or piece of music until the first is perfected. If I'm going to devote the time and effort, I may as well give it my all, for anything else is shortchanging myself and my abilities.

Other times the OCD Self can be detrimental, as I find myself making deals while completing a workout. There have been times when I've coasted to my car after a 78 mile ride, yet I feel unsatisfied, unfulfilled. Rationally, I know that 78 miles is great, that the ride was a success, and that I grew as a triathlete. But the OCD Self is unhappy and agitated. In the back of my mind, I hear her whisper, "Why not make it a full 80 miles? It's just a few more minutes... and then you can round off your weekly mileage. Why stop now when you're so close to hitting the big 8-0?" It's exhausting and frustrating.

On one such occasion, I gave into temptation, and rode the additional 2 miles. 80, perfect. But then, a check of my watch confirmed I was at 4 hours and 23 minutes. And before I could control it, before I could stop myself, I felt my OCD Self whisper excitedly, "If you biked for just another 7 minutes, you could round it off to 4:30. Isn't that what you want? A full 4 hours and 30 minutes..."

And no, on that particular occasion I didn't succumb to temptation. My crotch was killing me, and I quickly realized the trap I was falling into. But it gave me pause for thought: how perfectionistic are we? How much extra will we push ourselves, how much more from our body will we demand? And is this just intrinsically part of who we are, or do we develop these patterns only after picking up sport?

Running laps around the parking lot tonight was no exception. As my watch clicked over the 50 minute mark, I told myself that 55 minutes wasn't so far off, nor was 60. A full hour! Just think, a great 60 minute run - isn't that what you want?

And then a stronger part of me took over. My Rational Self had had enough, and decided to call it quits. Without a pause for thought, I hit the "stop" button on my watch, and slowed my pace to a walk.

The OCD Self was furious. Why why why? You're so close! Just keep running to the car! You could at least hit 55 minutes.

My Rational Self refused to comment. I continued walking, feeling my heart rate slow, hearing my body breath, and feeling myself relax.

Okay, maybe not 55 minutes. But you're at 50:16. Why not round it out to an even 51 minutes? Just 44 more seconds...

Luckily, I continued walking. I didn't listen, didn't succumb to my OCD Self any more, but instead began wondering how often this OCD side of me would appear throughout training and racing. How much was this Self, this Obsessive-Compulsive side, a part of my life? How often did she rear her head, only to have me blindly follow? How much of a part of my life was my OCD Self?

As I stretched in the growing twilight, I reflected on how often I had to finish a workout after a :00 on my watch - I always had to round up. 58:30 wasn't acceptable, whereas 60:00 was just fine. Would the additional 1:30 really make that much of a difference?

Maybe not for one run, but over the course of a season it could... I reasoned.

I guess there are just these things, these little things, that we all do that shape our lives and make us a part of who we are. I have training partners who are even more extreme, in the sense that they'll bike an additional 6 miles at 10 mph just to hit 100 miles. I've got other partners who simply don't care. 94 miles is 94 miles, end of story.

As for me, well, I figure I fall somewhere in the middle. I know enough to realize what's happening with my Rational Self and my OCD Self. There are times where Rational will win out, times that are less-stressful, that my cares aren't as significant. But then there are times when the OCD Self will simply take over, and I'm grateful. Let's face it: holding a heart rate of zone 4-5a for 3 X 12 minutes on the track is not easy, and only someone who has that bit of OCD in control will aim to hit her numbers every time. No doubt, it's an interesting battle, a neat concept, one that surely shapes who we are and affects the outcomes of training and racing.

So there you go. How much OCD is in you? Are you okay with a 59 minute run, or do you feel the need to run 60:00 and call it a day? How much in control is your OCD Self?

I'm still trying to figure myself out. There are days when the urge to push to the Nth degree is almost overwhelming, and I can't find the energy to stop. I'm afraid that if I don't give it my all, or at least an honest effort, that I won't reach my full potential, that I won't be the best triathlete that I can be. But being the best doesn't rely solely on running 75 minutes when the schedule call for 75 minutes. Stopping the workout at 70 minutes or (whoa!) 68 minutes is NOT the end of the world. However, getting into a pattern or a routine of following the plan, not cheating yourself, not being satisfied with continually cutting yourself short IS, I believe, a direct reflection on what kind of athlete you are and how much of yourself you're willing to give. If my program calls for a 4000 meter swim, and I only hit 3500, I'm selling myself short. Once, okay that's understandable. Maybe even twice. But falling in to the relaxed pattern of shortchanging can be detrimental both from the physical AND mental vantage of sport.

I guess our OCD Self helps us from becoming complacent. She won't accept anything short of what is expected, what we're meant to do. Hard workout? Tough it out! That's just the way it goes! And watch your cadence, while you're at it. Quick and light! Do it right while you're doing it, and it becomes second nature. Demand the best and it'll become second nature. Good job, now just keep going for another few minutes... And I've become a better athlete because of her.

But there's a time and a place for my OCD Self. She keeps me in check during training and racing, she demands technical proficiency, full concentration, and has helped me become the athlete I am. But just as I need a break from racing and training, I need a break from my OCD Self. So while I appreciate her appearance during my run today, I'm also grateful that my Rational Side took over and put a stop to the madness.

But it's reassuring, actually. When ready, I know that my OCD Self will be ready and waiting. Chomping at the bit, ready to go. Just not yet, though. Wait until after the end of the year, and then I'll unleash the beast, so to speak. So celebrate your inner- OCD Self, but don't let them take over entirely. The last thing I want to do, is see a good friend cycling at 8 mph on the trail in order to hit 60 miles. Not a pretty picture, especially when I consider it could just as easily be me, eyes glazed over, mouth sagging open from the effort, body stiff and uncomfortable from sitting in the saddle. Not a pretty picture, indeed. But one that hits close to home.

In the meantime, next time I run, I'll be sure to end at 49 minutes. Gulp! Or something like that.


Anonymous said...

So my friend, how do you call a person who avoids whole, rounded up numbers? I purposely set my alarm at 7:03, when I am supposed to ride 100 miles I either ride 102, or 97.8. I try to never end a run at 60 minutes, I can go around the parking lot just to finish at 61 min? Please tell do you call weird people like me?
Much love, ludi

Marit Chrislock-Lauterbach said...

Ludi, my friend... what can I say? Isn't your avoidance of "round numbers" just as much of an indication of your OCD Self as my obsession with stopping on the :00 is? What can I say - we're the same in different ways. Thanks for a great ride today, I had a blast. Great conversation and the time flew by!

Anonymous said...

Ludi is just as OCD as Marit.

PS: I remember something about some schnapps...I think it was good, but I was a bit happy when I was drinking it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Marit,
I liked this post, b/c just today Jerome and I went for a trail run and I said, "I want to run for 1 hour." We got back to the car in about 58:xx. I said, "nope...another 2 min or so.." Jerome could have cared less. HA! But, I will tell you...during the off season, I don't even wear a when I am just chilling, I don't care much. :) Jen