The World’s Slowest 5k

Fatigue is an emotionally-driven state.” Ross Edgley

I’m not normally a huge fan of training diaries or typical race reports – while at the elite level they can certainly grant the audience fascinating insight into the mind of an individual during a particularly gruelling event, generally speaking, I am personally less interested in hearing recaps, the ‘what’, and more interested in learning the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind athletic performance.

This being said, I thought I’d break my own paradigm on Misogi thus far and recount the latest personal boundary-exploring workout that my training team and I have endured – an attempt at climbing a vertical rock-wall as many times as possible, to failure, with the aims of comparing the vertical gain to famous mountain peaks across the globe.

The end result? A nine-hour, maximal-output effort (for three athletes with absolutely no pedigree in the world of rock climbing) of 5800 completely vertical metres (the altitude of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania).

The 1160 repetitions of the relatively short, but entirely unforgiving, wall brought on more blisters and callouses than our unprepared hands had previously thought possible. What started as a relatively sustainable and consistent pace, blocked into climbing sets of one hundreds metres at a time, slowed throughout the course of the day, until eventually each single climb of the wall seemed entirely impossible.

As with all Misogi attempts to date, the day commenced with a group meditation session – a habit that I am finding increasingly useful for building a strong mental disposition at the outset of a task, and one that I certainly plan on employing in each and every future endeavour. The meditation is a chance to decompress from the stress and distractions that naturally accompany preparation for any big event, and facilitates increased mental clarity and the opportunity to emotionally ‘brace’ for the challenge at hand.

More than anything, the time spent in silence best allows me to properly consider how I may feel in two, or three, or nine hours time, and to meet those historically ‘negative’ feelings with a sense of peace and acceptance. Rather than naively hoping that perhaps I’ll be spared from any huge discomfort on this particular day, the minutes devoted to pre-event mindfulness allow me to prepare for the inevitability of this discomfort – and grants me the opportunity to consider how I will respond, ahead of time.

The entire endeavour was just one great exercise in the development of work capacity, “the most underrated aspect of physical fitness” – put simply, the total amount of stress that the body can physically perform, recover from and positively adapt to. Building a higher work capacity allows us to train harder, more frequently, and to recover more rapidly. Hard work is all that separates elite athletes from aspiring athletes. We can get so easily caught in the weeds of specificity, and complex training methods, that we can gloss over the fact that, eventually, to improve, we just need to do more work.

The hope was that in introducing a huge amount of ‘stress and stimuli’ in the form of vertical climbing, both my and my training partners’ bodies would become more fatigue-resistant, our skeletal muscle better able to make sustained contraction after contraction, and our working minds more adept at handling fatigue – useful traits to have when undertaking a marathon swim, as I will be in three weeks time.

The ultimate goal, rather than achieving a particular vertical mileage, was simply to get to a point of complete exhaustion and physical discomfort, and, crucially, to continue. Part one was far more easily achieved than part two.

The whole point was for the event to get messy and unpleasant, as I had to continually remind myself when things did indeed get rather unpleasant. If this had been avoided, and we had stopped at the onset of fatigue and physical pain, then the hours already put in would have largely been for nothing.

I think so many athletes only really hit this huge mental barrier of pain and discomfort typically on the day of a race, rather than in training. The two-hour mark of the marathon becomes the only time in the training calendar where these hugely important occasions of ‘true’ exhaustion are experienced. These moments, with energy stores depleted, muscles screaming, and defeat looming on the peripheries, are the ‘bread and butter’ of endurance sports – and therefore how we respond to them defines our ability as endurance athletes.

Why then do so many of us seek to avoid these instances? In doing so, when the unavoidable fatigue does indeed set in at the late stages of an event, we are taken almost by surprise – unprepared for its arrival, and ill-equipped to manage it. Grit and mental toughness are not just trainable – they are only trainable; attained only through first hand experience.

A Misogi effort like this is essentially a dress-rehearsal for race day; plunging oneself into this too-often-avoided scenario, and forcefully providing an opportunity to develop the cognitive skills and techniques to endure more and more discomfort.

I’m hugely fortunate, as I have mentioned in earlier articles, to have the team that I currently have to train with. They all share an appreciation for these teaching moments of total bodily exhaustion. Jack is only a late-notice phone call away, eager to jump into any ridiculous challenge, and Julie wakes up next to me every day. The two of them are some of the toughest people I know – and both of their attitudes, their strength and fortitude, and their desires for self-improvement are completely contagious.

So the three of us climbed, well into the realms of genuine physical complaints. When we came close to pulling the pin, at the eight hour mark, I asked Jack how long he felt like he had been “genuinely in trouble, physically”. We both agreed that we had been in this position of increasingly difficult-to-endure fatigue for about four hours.

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Interestingly, as with perhaps all endurance events, the pain had gradually increased to a point, until it suddenly ceased to worsen – before returning with a vengeance, hours later, and ending our day at 5800 metres of altitude. For the majority of the day, however, the pain had been present, but manageable. In only the first hour of climbing, large blisters had appeared and torn on both of my hands. The pangs of early panic were undeniable, as I imagined how my hands might look and perform in six hours time.

But the blisters never worsened. My hands – or my climbing technique, or my mind, or a complex mix of all factors – managed to adjust to the challenge they were presented with, and I climbed on unimpeded, until finally complete exhaustion took over, and I was unable to complete a single repetition of the rock wall. Despite the blisters, it was a powerful reminder of the sheer adaptability of human physiology.

The day was a success for the three of us who climbed, in that we achieved what we had set out to do in the mindset in which it should have been achieved. The focus was far more on the process, rather than the outcome. Total height climbed, although a strong motivator, remained appropriately second to the more intangible development of mental strength and resilience.

I hobbled away from the training day proud of the physical output, but far more proud of the grounded, mindful and diligently self-reflective manner the three of us had performed it in.

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