Rainy Resilience Run

What doesn’t kill you – makes you stronger.  Apparently.

I reminded myself of this as an unforecast deluge took hold of my local meadow and I squelched through a fairly torrid five miles not remotely appreciating the beauty of my surroundings.  Maybe the dramatic change in conditions, that soaked me to the skin, would toughen me up.  Perhaps it would make me more able to ride out another rain drenched run or extrapolate to tolerating all manner of circumstantial or medical difficulties.  After all, I’m expecting a few fairly soon.

This conventional wisdom has some logic to it.  After a number of ultramarathons, I can attest that it’s far easier to get through the deepest troughs, having been through them before and come out the other side.  For example, I seem to experience a physical/mental/emotional dip at around marathon distance.  I’ve never worked out why – it could be a fuelling/hydration issue, the point where muscles start to get tired or simply the psychological toll of going past the longest standard running distance.  Whatever the issue, it helps to know that, before long, I’ll probably feel better again for some food, water, a walking break or for absolutely no discernible reason.  A long ultra proves the saying that ‘it’ll all be fine in the end’ even if at the peak of suffering, despair, cold and exhaustion, it’s very hard to believe that.  I suppose this is where experience comes in – if the path is familiar, it’s so much easier to retrace your steps.

For anyone with a base level of anxiety, it’s hard to remember that things tend to work out, even if they have time after time.  I’ve never been in charge of a school performance cycle without the nagging worry verging on panic that relevant ensembles wouldn’t be ready in time and the show would be a disaster.  And I’ve got a load of prior experience on which to hang some hope.  There have been some close calls, but I can’t remember any performance I’ve put my name to being described as disastrous.  Sure – some definitely shine brighter than others, but I have a real talent for finding the worst in any situation, so I’m pretty sure I’d remember.  One thing I’m certain of is that I’m not in the habit of giving up in these situations – the show must go on.

Some believe resilience can be taught and trained. They are generally the same people keen to sell you self help books and educational resources.  Others have taken to politicising the ability to persevere – do we have a ‘snowflake generation’ on our hands?  Or are younger people just better at expressing how they feel, given they have to face so much more adversity than their parents’ generation?  Bruce Daisley puts forward an alternative viewpoint that suggests resilience is strongest when it’s collective.  Look at the Ukrainian blitz sprit, for example. I’m not a social anthropologist and don’t have any learned answers but I’d say I know a bit about resilience, having had to display it quite a lot. And that’s the key – resilience is there when it has to be.  No one can teach you to display it.

One thing i know is that there’s more to endurance than just keeping going despite a mounting desire to stop.  Over almost countless millennia, humans have gotten so good at surviving comfortably that there are fewer and fewer ways for us to die.  So it’s easy to forget that a desire to stop mounts because we have some pretty well honed and hardwired instincts to stop when that’s a good idea.  That’s why we  generally choose not to go without food and water whilst toiling away day in day out on 23 1/2 hour shifts of hard labour.  Our bodies are pretty good at telling us when they’ve had enough and that tends to come in the form of pain and sorrow.  It doesn’t show a lack of backbone to seek a better balance, be it in the moment or overall and we should be wary of treating shunning it as a virtue.  That we live comfortable enough lives to be able to step out of a physical, mental or emotional comfort zone is the greatest luxury we have.  Some people, like ultra runners, even choose to do this for fun.

Daisley also talks a lot about control.  When we feel in control, it’s easier to be resilient, because we are more able to mitigate the factors that required the resilience in the first place.  Well it’s fair to say that, recently, that control has been taken away from me.  I’m pretty good at tolerating pain, but that’s only to a point.  Being powerless to ease that pain is what gets to a person.  It feels like it will never end and grinds you down into a fine powdered.  It’s only so far that the ‘this too shall pass’ mindset can take you before the pain has broken you and your internal monologue has turned to an anguished, pathetic whimper. Even when it turns out that too did pass, the memory fades but the background desire to avoid it happening again lingers long.

Over chemo and for months after surgery, I doubted my resilience.  I didn’t dare leave the house in cold weather for fear the peripheral neuropathy would cause my throat to close up.  I didn’t even attempt to run because of the associated chest pain.  Sometimes I couldn’t even get up because general fatigue or post-surgery pain convinced me not to even try.  As these issues subsided, I expected my innate resilience to come back at the same rate, but that’s taken a lot longer.  After all, it still requires a huge effort of will to make it out of bed, let alone out the door.  I’ve come to the conclusion that the ability to endure, tolerate and persevere depends on what’s already there.  When things are almost insurmountably tough already, no one would choose to make them harder, no matter how many times they’re accused of being a snowflake.  But the prospect of a nice little 50k trail run doesn’t seem so bad after a good night’s sleep, decent breakfast, mind free of troubles and distinct lack of pain.

They also say that time is a great healer and I think that phrase has a lot going for it.  I’m noticing the gradual return of resilience as I’m more and more able to do things like run in whatever weather conditions nature has in store for me.  Let’s hope I have another chance to get past that 26 mile dip too before cancer requires me to spend all my resilience elsewhere.

I’m still not sure if what doesn’t kill you – makes you stronger.  But what will kill me – hasn’t yet and right now, I’m feeling pretty strong.

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