The Swim

Speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.” – Mahatma Ghandi

A couple of weeks have passed with no internet connection, fortunately providing me with ample time to reflect on my first attempt on an English Channel distance, open-water swim. The day, now a curious mix of both treasured and unpleasant memories, was nothing if not a day of constant teaching moments.

As perhaps with all Misogi attempts, it was a blend of both failure and success – of profound highs and all-consuming lows. The unavoidable yin and yang of endurance pursuits, I suppose.

In a purely literal, but perhaps disingenuous, interpretation of the word, the swim attempt was a failure.

I didn’t swim the full distance of the English Channel. Eventually, the current became far too strong, the wind far too insistent, my muscles far too fatigued and my struggling metabolism wholly unable to keep my core temperature in a healthy range. After an entire day of sincere and stubborn battling, I threw in the towel and head for the shore, an hour or so before the sun set on the river. I gave almost all that I had to give, and that day, it wasn’t enough to carry my body thirty-two kilometres down stream.

I didn’t do what I set out to do.

This all being said, when I stepped out of the longest and murkiest river my country has to offer, there were absolutely no feelings of failure or defeat. Instead, I was wrapped in feelings of deep satisfaction. I was immensely proud of my efforts throughout the course of the day. I had faced real fear, uncertainty and true adversity for ten hours. Despite my incomparably generous and ever-present support team on kayaks, I was very much alone in my self-imposed, watery predicament – no one could do the work for me, and the wind and river weren’t going anywhere.

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I had been caught off guard by deceptively icy waters, a strong wind and current that had no concerns for my bold plans, and muscular contractions that were failing me with increasing regularity. Eventually, my leg muscles were violently and painfully cramping nearly every hundred metres. If I ever stopped moving to eat or tend to a screaming muscle, my core temperature would drop into hypothermia. These mounting problems arose far earlier in the day than I am proud to admit. Eventually, all the Vaseline and Gatorade in the world couldn’t help me.

But crucially, I kept going, until I simply couldn’t anymore. Things were unbelievably tough for almost the entirety of the ordeal – as was genuinely expected. I had set the bar characteristically high for myself, and in the act of trying to clear it and falling short, had improved my capacity for endurance, my personal growth, and my understanding and confidence in my own ability to put my head down and work against a mounting desire to stop. I put fear of likely failure aside, arguably some kind of reputation on the line, and front-crawled down the river until I was no longer able to.

I had done what I set out to do.

Just three months ago, an Ironman Triathlon distance swim of three and a half kilometres was the definition of a marathon swim for me. How could I possibly finish swimming twenty-five open-water kilometres, my head buried in murky water for an entire day, and feel like a failure?

This is a far-cry from how I might have felt in the past about such an attempt. Shifting away from an unhealthy, perfectionist vantage point is a daily practice for me – I’ve certainly conditioned myself to judge my own endeavours from a completely unrealistic space. The Lewy Horwood of two years ago would absolutely have deemed this effort as a failure on all counts, and would have been suitably heart-broken by it. It continues to take constant, applied work to become less obsessive, less self-deprecating and develop a realistic sense of self. Therefore, being able to very publicly fall short of my intended goal – the entire day being streamed live on social media and GPS tracking – and walk away feeling nothing but a profound sense of pride and gratitude was a huge victory for me.

I stated constantly before the swim that I completely accepted the very real possibility of failure looming ahead of me. The English Channel is a heck of a long way to swim, after all. The day offered a rare opportunity to put my proverbial money where my mouth is, and demonstrate just how willing I am to work against the odds, and to grow and learn when things don’t ‘go to plan’.

We should all do these things more often, I think. Not everyone’s things are swimming down rivers all day, or climbing rock walls, or choking strangers in sanctioned competitions, or running ultra-marathons. But the lessons and their applications are exactly the same. We should be less ruled by the prospect of failure – in fact, we should re-brand and reclaim the word. We should truly extend ourselves. We should bite off more than we can chew, fall short of the ridiculous mark, but find ourselves further than we ever thought we might. I don’t think we really learn a thing when everything just goes to plan – failure is our greatest teacher, by far.

It struck me that the two capacities I am most grateful for are my body’s ability to recover physically (I was able to hit the gym and pool after a day’s rest), and my mind’s capacity for moving forward, win, lose or draw. No part of my psyche was disheartened or driven away from pursuits like this – in the car trip home from the river, I was already deep in thought about the next challenge, and what I would do differently.

I was fortunately taught from a young age not to rest on my laurels or be broken by my failures, and to return to the work.

It seems only fitting to close with one of my favourite Stoic philosophy lines –

No man steps into the same river twice: for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus

Thank you, to all, for your support, and for reading! I am eternally grateful. Here’s to returning to the work.

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Swinging For The Fences

Far better it is to dare mighty things – to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure – than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much; for they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory, nor defeat.”       Theodore Roosevelt

Strategy and considerate preparation have almost always been crucial factors in most true athletic achievements to date. We collectively marvel at the perfect execution of a carefully constructed game-plan on the big stages, and rightly so. Countless NBA titles, heavyweight championship belts and Olympic medals have been won and defended due to strict adherence to a calculated strategy, capitalising on an opponent’s weaknesses or one’s own strengths.

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Alex Hutchinson raised what I thought was a very interesting point in the closing chapters of Endure (his most recent book, mentioned several times here so far), reflecting on both his own experiences as an aspiring Olympic middle-distance runner, and as a life-time spectator and colour-commentator for elite road running events. He explored the idea that, while indeed adherence to pacing strategies has been behind some of the most consistently successful distance running careers, and has prevented many an amateur runner from metaphorically falling apart mid-race, perhaps pacing in this manner places a self-imposed barrier in the way of an athlete achieving their full potential.

Logic would suggest that having minimal variance in average pace, for both elite and non-elite athletes, would produce a more even and predictable finish time – saving an athlete from the heartache of a race falling apart. With this in mind, setting out with a premeditated idea of what a realistic sustainable pace is for the individual, and adhering to it, would be more likely to produce a favourable result.

Hutchinson recounts, in his commentary of the 2011 Toronto Waterfront Marathon, that this approach is far from the ‘kamikaze’ style pacing variability of the East African champions who dominate the sport.

There is a certain ‘do-or-die’ attitude that surrounds elite Kenyan and Ethiopian distance running; perhaps motivated by national and personal pride, by the economic importance that prize money and endorsements hold in the developing world, and/or innate confidence stemming from the legacy of great athletes originating from the region.  Enormous group fartlek sessions in the thin airs of the Rift Valley are renowned for both the brutal speed at which they are performed, and the complete willingness for up-and-coming athletes to suffer, even if only briefly, alongside the established champions.

African distance athletes are known for this variance from ‘traditional’ Western approaches to running strategy – where North Americans and Europeans are typically methodical and deliberate, East Africans employ an unrelenting and seemingly unsustainable pace. When 96 of the 100 fastest marathon times in 2016 were run by athletes from East Africa, it would surely be a mistake to be dismissive of their unconventionally risky pacing strategies.

Hutchinson argues that performing in the traditional approach of carefully calculated kilometre splits may be unnecessarily confining – stating, “there is something inherently limiting about the fetishization of even pacing”. Modern sports science has for a long time distanced itself from the twentieth-century view of the ‘the body as machine’, understanding that more nuanced and often intangible factors affect athletic performance rather than just sheer measurable cardiovascular output.

Long distance races, subsequently, are more than just “plumbing contests, measuring whose heart can deliver the most oxygen to their muscles” – and yet why do we apply this old-school, limited looking-glass when discussing pacing for maximal performance? Why do we forget the very real role that abstracts like motivation, pain tolerance and sheer willingness have in such sporting achievements?

The criticism of traditional pacing, put simply, is if one decides how quickly one is going to run each mile split, then one negates the possibility of a faster finishing time – “you’ve put a ceiling on your potential achievement… if you execute the perfect race pace, that means you have effectively decided, within the first few strides, how fast you could complete the full distance.”

Certainly, over the course of a career, one might have better average finish times by sticking to careful pacing plans, but could it not be argued that the capacity for having one of those ‘run of your life’-type days is self-denied?

There is no opportunity to surprise yourself with an unexpectedly good day; you’ve put a ceiling on your potential for achievement, from the moment the starting gun fires. As a result, this approach may produce better results on average, but it is less likely to produce dramatic outliers – jaw-droppingly fast (or slow) times.”

I should perhaps have prefaced this article by stating that I’m not entirely sure myself what to do with this idea, rather than simply trying to rewire how we think about our own limits. Pretty stock-standard Misogi writing, undeniably.

What I found perhaps most useful in Hutchinson’s investigation, and the application of his findings to his own relatively successful running career, was his speculation that perhaps he never really reached his own physiological limits, as he had sometimes believed to be the case. After a perfectly executed pacing strategy at the 2003 Cherry Blossom 10 Mile, which saw him run impeccably-disciplined splits and surge past struggling athletes in the late stages to finish eighth place, he was comfortable in the belief that, even on his best possible day, he simply lacked the sheer speed and cardiovascular engine to ever beat the seven athletes in front of him – and he was fine with that. It was simply biological, and as much as anything is, out of his hands.

Later, following decades of research and publishing in the fields of human physiology, he questioned the accuracy of his conclusion concerning his biological limitations. What might have happened if he had thrown caution to the wind and ran to win, despite the pacing plans? Sure, if he applied this brazen attitude at every event, his career would be littered with disappointing results – but is it possible that among the blow-outs, there may have been some truly extraordinary outcomes?

And what about ourselves? How often do we impose these unnecessarily low bars on ourselves? If we never swung for the fence, we might go our entire lives (safe from embarrassingly unimpressive results, but) never realising our true capacities.

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Speaking only anecdotally, I do find it interesting how improved my testing results generally are compared to my training results – for instance, when pushed to do as many strict pull-ups as I possibly can in one maximal effort test, I find myself almost comfortably doubling what feels like almost my maximum when in training. I’m not one to ignore hard work whilst training, but the difference is undeniable. Somewhere along the way, I’ve conditioned myself to feel like twelve repetitions is nearly the most I can complete for a set of pull-up exercises, as part of a training session. Although the metaphorical bar here feels appropriate, my testing results would suggesting otherwise – I’m selling myself short, and I don’t even realise it.

I suppose this is just something to think about, next time we are setting goals for ourselves – both in the big picture, and the small. Is that really as fast, or as heavy, or as as long as we are capable?

I’m now three weeks away from my first training attempt at the full, thirty-five kilometre distance for the Channel-length swim – a dress rehearsal, of sorts – so the time to put my money where my mouth is draws ever closer.

 

 

 

 

 

Have A Little Faith

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” Buddha

I wrote earlier about what we can understand about ourselves when we examine the traits of our role models, of those that inspire us, and what specifically it is about them that captures our imagination. The same is true for the friends and loved ones that we surround ourselves with.

On reflection, I’ve learned that one of my most desirable traits in both a friend and a partner is an innate sense of self-reliance; a preparedness to believe in one’s own capacities, a willingness to try and to suffer for their goals, and a quiet-confidence and humility in their ability. We often see in others that which we hope for ourselves.

I deeply believe that we are collectively capable of so much more than we ever really ask of ourselves. Similarly, I deeply believe that we unnecessarily over-complicate our training lives most of the time, and lack the intrinsic self-assurance to just take the plunge and try. We fear failure, or just simple discomfort, way too much, failing to see such instances as welcome teachable moments rather than problems to desperately avoid. We think that challenges are too grand in scale for us, achievable only for a select breed of ‘elite’, who are seemingly blessed from birth with merits greater than our own.

We lack the capacity to “jump off the cliff, and build our wings on the way down“, when such an attitude is sometimes an entirely viable option. Adopting a mindset of deep and real self-reliance moves us away from this fear and closer to reaching our goals; its price, however, is accepting this risk of failure.

The sea’s only gifts are harsh blows, and, occasionally, the chance to feel strong … I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong – to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once, in the most ancient of human conditions; facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.”
Primo Levi, Bear Meat

I want this sense of individualism to further grow within my own self, and so it is perhaps no surprise that two of those closest to me in my day to day life reflect that which I seek. For me, there is something undeniably inspiring and assuring about a person who is prepared to just try – to ‘have their own back’, and trust in the own ability to put their head down and work, with or without the guarantee of success.

I am reminded of this every time I train with Jack.

Sweat-soaked (and occasionally blood-splattered) workouts with him are just one constant and powerful lesson in the enduring capacity of the human spirit – each time, an unwavering testament to the fact that we all have huge reserves of strength and stamina, if we are only willing to push ourselves that little bit more than normal. His abnormal levels of determination, humility and resilience are all praise-worthy, but most admirable is his unrivalled ability for self-reliance. He trusts in himself, and his own capabilities, to the point that seemingly nothing will stop him from trying. He’ll go down swinging – sometimes very literally.

He doesn’t over-complicate his training, or his preparation, or let himself be intimidated by looming obstacles or seemingly immovable tasks.

Jack takes the plunge. He jumps, and builds his wings on the way down. It’s impossible to not find myself moved and inspired by such a rare team-mate. That’s why, with a little over a weeks notice, I found myself next to Jack, covered to my neck in ice in an emptied compost bin, in the heart of a frosty South Australian Winter.

The morning’s workout was especially brutal. We spent an hour in full-contact with the ice, closely monitoring each other for the early signs of hypothermia. We ran ten miles, and we fought each with shaking muscles and shivering skin for another hour. With the mid-set additions of push-ups and pull-ups, the entire ordeal ended up a bone-crunching and freezing five hours.

Purely in terms of elapsed time, this would be a physical output nearly five-times as long as anything Jack had attempted before. I was at least blessed (?) with a lifetime of endurance sports, and although the ice and the fighting were both entirely new to me, the sheer work-load was not. Despite his unconventional childhood, Jack did not have years of dedicated endurance-sport training to fall back on – and he had not prepared.

How would one prepare, really, for climbing out of ice and trying to choke your closest friend unconscious?

What Jack does have, that prepares him far better for such ridiculous feats as five and eight-hour workouts than any impressive resume of endurance races, is an unprecedented ability to put his head down and work through discomfort, and to have faith in his capacity to succeed. He walks the path.

I am similarly blessed to spend my life with a partner who, on an almost daily basis, reminds me both of the simple beauty of exploring our limits in the natural world, and the utmost importance of faith in one’s self.

I turned twenty-four last year, during the halfway point of my first attempt at running one hundred miles. Kilometres sixty through to eighty were, for the most part, something of a shit-show. I struggled on, and Julie met me, as my pacer and a valuable half of my support team, setting out with the intention of cruising through ten kilometres or so at my now-faltering pace.

The trails we covered are notoriously unpredictable and unrelenting – steep ocean cliffs, treacherous rocky outcrops, and sheer miles of soft sand – and markedly different from the one urban half-marathon that Julie had run before this, some years earlier.

Due to a sense of empathy for my carbohydrate-depleted plight, and deep motivation to push herself further than before, Julie ended up running with me the remaining fifty kilometres to the finish line – surpassing in one long, hot day her previous half-marathon record distance, passing the marathon point, and continuing on into the ultra-marathon distance realm.

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She was poorly-rested, dehydrated, fighting illness and menstrual-pain, and yet, in setting out without expectation and with quiet-confidence, she ran over twice as far as she had ever covered, on some of the most infamously technical trails in South Australia.

Even now, over six months later, Julie can still hardly believe the outcome of the day. Most interestingly, had you asked her the day before her unexpected foray in ultra-distance events how much time she would need from then to prepare for a road marathon, she would have said at least six months. She had been conditioned, as we all are, to believe that such achievements sit so far from our grasps, and that it is only with carefully structured, long-term dedicated training that we may be hope to attain them.

That’s not to discount the hugely important role that training has (I hope that this is clear, given all of my writing on the subject thus far, and the decade of my life spent carefully training my mind and body). Simply, we sometimes overstate and over-complicate it. We sell ourselves short.

Here, with far from ideal preparation and absolutely no advanced notice, Julie ran for eight-hours on demanding trails. She didn’t drop dead. The sun came up the next day.

This day, as are many with Julie, was rich in life lessons.

This capacity was always in Julie – she was always capable of this distance, and undoubtedly greater accomplishments. These ‘superhuman’ abilities just came out that day, entirely unplanned, because she was willing.

I am convinced that it is this willingness is the key for all of us – who could really say what we are capable of, if we didn’t fear obstacles, or the opinions or others, or self-imposed limitations, or failure? Julie walked that path, and reaped the rewards. Her unassuming confidence in herself increased, as one would expect, and new challenges suddenly appeared equally achievable.

I would put forward, contrary to popular belief, that neither Jack, nor Julie, nor Ross Edgley, nor myself were born with said willingness – it is absolutely something you can teach, and something we can all learn.

It can be downright painful at times, difficult at almost all times, but putting ourselves in situations that demand more of ourselves – be it more repetitions in the gym, wilder water than we are used to swimming, steeper trails or longer hours – is the way to develop this elastic skill of self-reliance. We can develop our ability to function efficiently and safely when the cavalry is not coming, and build an internal confidence that we have reserves of strength and endurance yet untapped.

Not a single person it merely born with it, and we all may learn to do it better.

On Failure, My Greatest Teacher

No man steps into the same river twice; for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus

It seems that even speaking of the potential for failure before any kind of attempt is a bit of a taboo in many circles; as if uttering its name is some kind of ill-fated omen that brings it forth.

Misogi doesn’t subscribe to this kind of thinking. Failure is, and always should be, an inevitable facet of life. It should always be a teacher that we seek out, rather than desperately avoid.

The true possibility of failure should be present in every great attempt that we make; otherwise, what sort of goals are we presenting ourselves? A one-hundred percent success rate in personal endeavours suggests only that we perhaps are not at all as comfortable with genuinely exploring our limits as we profess to be. Rather, it would appear that the idea of a challenge so great that the risk of not succeeding is possible actually intimidates us.

If you’re hitting your mark every time that you try to, then you are simply nowhere near the outer edges of your limits. And you’re selling yourself short.

This kind of criticism can sound particularly unlikely to already established endurance athletes, who may find it easy to brush off such suggestions of intimidation or fear. After all, they may have completed events that may leave non-athletes with their jaw on the floor. I would argue, however, that just as everyone else, we also become acclimatised and familiar with certain kinds of challenges – which become our new norm. They may seem from the outside and to the untrained eye as huge undertakings, but I would wager that, typically, the ‘challenges’ that we pursue with some regularity do not truly garner our real respect, or offer much in the way of true risk.

This is another, slightly more abstract manifestation of both the SAID principle discussed earlier, as well as the training principle of progressive overload. Over enough time, we adapt to that which we practice, and what was once almost impossible for us gradually becomes our new benchmark.

The bar just gets raised to a new level of comfort. A hundred-kilometre ultra-marathon becomes your familiar territory, just as a five kilometre run once seemed. That’s not to suggest that the concept of such a task becomes easy – rather, that we are relatively confident in a positive outcome, as has historically been the case for us thus far. There doesn’t feel to be quite so much on the line as the first time we made the attempt.

Living our lives, particularly our athletic lives, avoiding failure limits us.

Failure is by far our greatest teacher. I would go as far to say that failure is one of the greatest tools in an athlete’s toolbox. When success bestows our attempts, we seldom accurately reflect on exactly what happened to get us to this point. Instead, the feelings of elation and accomplishment overshadow any real analysis of the details of the event. Critical analysis is thrown to the wind.

Is is the act of failure that actually demands reflection – it forces us to be humbled, and to closely ponder the reality of our attempt. Or at least it should. Any truly useful lesson in the athletic realm, I would argue, occurs only in these occasional moments where things did not go as we had planned.

The practice of Misogi, if nothing else, is an excellent source of failure, and an excellent provider of these moments of forced reflection.

When done correctly – in that truly audacious attempts are made and committed to, with or without ideal preparation – failure should be a very real possibility. Almost fifty percent of the time, to be accurate. Misogi begs for a rewiring of how we consider failure – it is not something to be avoided, but rather something we should meet like an old and ever-dependable friend. We ought to seek more opportunities to fail, to bite of more than we may be able to chew, in an effort to genuinely develop as athletes, and as people. That way one can be sure that you are truly nearing your limits.

Do not fear failure – not failure, but low aim is crime. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.” – Bruce Lee

When I step back and think objectively about my Channel swim attempt in just under three months, I can appreciate the element of something approaching delusion. The swim will be over seven times as far as I have ever swam, in one continuous hit out, in an environment in which I am extremely and profoundly uncomfortable and unfamiliar. To be entirely candid, there have already been many points during training at which I have thought about changing my plans to something less aquatic and uncomfortable; always neatly wrapped in an adequate excuse that leaves my ego intact.

The idea for me is not to pretend that the likelihood of failure is not high – as it undeniably is – or that success is assured. Instead, this kind of attempt is designed to genuinely explore the limits of that which I can perform, while acknowledging that said limit may be far closer than I might have hoped or planned for.

The outcome doesn’t matter so much; what is far more important is the sincerity of the attempt. There is something to be said, I believe, for going down swinging.

One thing that I am slowly learning to accept is that failure does not always come as one might expect it to. It’s surprisingly right there in the title of Alex Hutchinson’s earlier mentioned book Endurance; Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance – I just missed it the first time around.

Elastic. Failure is flexible, but not only in the way that I might hope it to be. Sometimes our limits are actually closer than we may realise, or closer than they may have been at other times. When you set out to explore your outer limits, you will eventually find them, and they will not always be in the same place. This can be due to countless intangible variables – from sleep, to diet, to external stresses, to emotional struggles. I’ve failed at things I once found easy. I’ve relatively coasted my way through certain hundred-kilometre trail runs, and at other times found myself face down on the trail, thirty kilometres into a training run, desperately exhausted and wondering for the life of me ‘what the hell is going on?’

It sounds obvious, but it requires an acceptance of the fact that we are humans, and are not robotic, to properly understand. We do not improve and develop on an unwavering upwards trajectory. We’re not better and better, everyday. The river is never the same, and the man is never the same. To me, this idea is at once both humbling, and empowering.

A curious cognitive balancing act is required, as this acceptance of potential for failure should not have any real impact on confidence, going into a Misogi attempt. When I’m toeing the start line of the Channel swim, I will need to be holding both this aforementioned acceptance of failure’s potential, as well as an unshakeable confidence in my own ability to perform and to endure hardship. It is rather difficult to explain this apparent double-think, and I suspect you might have to have lived it before to properly understanding its topography. Coming to terms with limitations does not equate to lack of confidence. The swim will be an ode for my willingness to attempt what is possibly more than I am ready for, while at the same time trying to maintain complete faith in my ability to get the task done.

The practice of Misogi is not some sort of golden-ticket solution for ensuring that you can truly achieve anything that you put your mind to, every time. It it is the opposite of that. It is a very real tool for putting yourself into situations of looming failure, and developing the techniques and mental and emotional agility to cope with such a scenario.

It will teach you that you can indeed do far more than you may think you are capable of – but more importantly, it will teach you how to deal with the occasions when you can’t.