“Strength doesn’t come from what you can do.
It comes from overcoming things you thought you couldn’t.”
This past weekend, me and a couple of my less smart friends (David and our own Coach Jason) took on the Frozen Snot race outside of Lock Haven, PA for the second year in a row. We had to get after it again because last year was a failure, in terms of a couple of us not finishing the entire race.
The Frozen Snot is billed as “mile for mile, the toughest half marathon in the country.” I didn’t know that going into the race the first time, which led to my failure and to eventually my sitting down to write this blog post today. The Frozen Snot for me could be more aptly named The Mountain of Lessons. The full race is 13.5 miles of mostly climbing and descending mountains in northern Pennsylvania, during what is on average the coldest weekend of the year. The first leg is 8.5 miles, and consists of 4 tough climbs, the first of which is a mile long and named “Barb’s Kiss My Ass”. In fact, each major climb is given the respect of being named, with Barb’s KMA followed by “Goat Path”, “Gut Check”, and “Why Not”. After coming down from the Why Not hill, you finish the first loop and come out to a clearing with hot food and drinks and are presented with a choice. Do you continue for the second loop of 5 more miles, passing a sign that taunts, “Prepare Ye to Meet THE BEAST”? Or do you take the easier out and head back to the starting point, a 1.5 mile jog back to more food, warmth and comfort?
A year ago, I took the easy road. Looking back, I remember why — I genuinely felt afraid that if I continued I would end up seriously hurt. My legs were so far gone, I thought I might make an easy-to-make mistake coming down a steep descent and then be in trouble. Of course, this was by no means a certainty, but I was going through that familiar negative self-talk loop that we’ve all experienced at one time or another, and I was convincing myself that the smart, safe choice was to quit.
Of course, immediately after I was done and back at the warm Army Reserve Center that we staged from, I felt that deep sting of regret. And Jason and I, who had helped each other come to that decision, decided right there that we would be back.
This year, we succeeded in finishing the whole course, along with David again (his third time… I’m pretty sure he’s half mountain goat). And I think we succeeded because we took on board all of the lessons that the mountain dished out the first time, learned from them, and adjusted our training and planning appropriately. Here were some of the key lessons I learned:
- To most successfully complete an endurance challenge, you have to do SOME specific training for it. Last year, I took the rather cocky approach that CrossFit training was far superior to everything else and would prepare me for any physical challenge that would dare to come my way. Yeah, good luck. But before you go tell Greg Glassman that I was bad-mouthing his baby, let me explain! I do believe that CrossFit is the most inclusive training regimen in that we train for strength and endurance, high-intensity intervals and low-intensity stamina sessions. That makes it a great way — the best way — to prepare for any UNKNOWN challenge that may come your way. But what if we KNOW what the challenge is? Is it still a good idea to exclude specific training in that modality in order to prepare yourself?
This year, I included a lot more running, climbing simulation (box step-ups and lunges, usually weighted), and longer suckfest sessions that lasted a good 30-40 minutes — about the time it would take to climb a mile-long hill. I feel that incorporating those workouts 2-3 times per week into my CrossFit training made me much more physically prepared for the event.
- Respect the event, and the crazy bastards that created it. This is the beginning of mental preparation for a relatively unknown event — make it known to you! Do your research, read reviews from past finishers, understand what the big challenges will be. Begin to visualize successfully completing the event, and where you’re getting tripped up because you think you might have a hard time with something, note that this is where you will have to focus your training.
Going into my first attempt at the Snot, I did not research it, I did not understand how difficult the hills would be, and I thought we would get it done in a few hours. Boy, was I wrong! And it was simply for lack of preparation.
After the first year, I knew that the long hill climbs would be the most physically and mentally demanding pieces for me. I trained for long periods, but also tried to keep a relatively low heart rate during my workouts, practicing and visualizing how I might do this on the mountain. One more thing that came to me just before the race was a reminder to smile and enjoy myself. I get to be outside in the PA wilderness for a whole day! There are absolutely worse ways to spend a day. It’s hard to be miserable if you’re smiling, and so I kept that positive attitude throughout the event.
- Plan for small wins. In a long event that will surely be full of hardship, it’s important to have some intermediate waypoints picked out that represent a time for a quick celebration, because you succeeded to that point. When I completed the SEALFIT Kokoro event, a 50+ hour beatdown, I knew that seeing the sun come up each morning would be my small win for the day. During the Frozen Snot, I identified two hills (Barb’s KMA and the Gut Check) that really kicked my ass last time, and I packed two Snickers bars in my ruck — one to eat at the top of each of those hills. Sure enough, at the top of each hill, that extra jolt of calories (followed by lots of water) felt great physically, and the little victory dance that followed reminded me that I had checked off a major milestone. Now keep going!
- Failure breeds success. If you’re going to challenge yourself to constantly improve, you have to expect that sometimes you are going to fail. The silver lining here is that you can use that failure to learn key lessons – why did you fail? What could you have done better to prepare? — and then also use that failure to motivate you to succeed the next time. The only time you truly fail is if you don’t learn your lesson, try the same thing again with the same plan, and repeat your mistakes. They say that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing again and expecting different results. Don’t be a crazy person.
I hope you enjoyed reading this recap and my associated lessons learned as much as I enjoyed crossing that finish line on the full course. It wasn’t pretty, and I didn’t win anything except for some generally painful legs and some great memories. Now onto the next one — any ideas??