Oftentimes friends and acquaintances ask me why I do Ironman triathlons and ultramarathons. “Why subject yourself to that kind of pain?…for recreation, for fun? Are you sadistic?” Many people, on the outside of the long distance endurance world, wonder why we are so “crazy?” I too, also pondered this before I became part of the tribe.
Let me see if I can explain. There is a good reason, and it's one you might relate to.
I do these events to battle my inner demons. Before you write me off as somebody with “serious issues”…hear me out. There is a belief among non-runners that we are all a bunch of nutbags, and maybe we are. But we are much more similar to all of you than you might expect.
I have inner demons, and so do you. We all have them. Unless you are perfect, you have them. Contrary to some people's beliefs, I have yet to meet that perfect person.
You have that voice in your head. You know the one. The one that tells you all manner of negative things about yourself. This voice is your insecurities, your doubts and your fears. Those are your inner demons.
For some, like myself a few years ago, they are very loud, and very active. For others, not as much. But, make no mistake, they are there…even when you don’t notice them.
If you say, I don’t have inner demons, as one of my friend’s says to me. I beg to differ. They are just waiting for the dark to come out. They don’t come out when life is good. Only when darkness settles.
Maybe it’s a divorce, being laid off, losing a loved one, a business failure, rejection, fear or pain. These things stir your inner demons from their cave.
I have said to my friend, you must go into the pain cave to find your inner demons.
Battle ensues, some I win. Some demons are vanquished in those mountains, some I must come back to fight another day as they are too strong to conquer with just one battle. The only option that is off the table is quitting when it gets hard. If you do, you make the demons stronger. It is exhausting, hard work, but it must be done.
When I leave the pain cave, some order has been restored, and the demons are now quiet. I have cleaned my "cave," so to speak.
Again, why do I intentionally look for this pain? Why not just live a life of ease and comfort? You might protest, what is wrong with a life of hedonism? Why not avoid pain...avoid doing hard things? Do the least, not the most. Seems reasonable.
This was my lifestyle not long ago, and it did not serve me well. I was fragile. Now, my personal mantra is “do hard things.” It is on the wall of my office to remind me of the right path. I now know that is where virtue/excellence lives.
I do battle with my inner demons on my terms. As any good battlefield commander will tell you, if you must fight, this is always the preference. I do not wait for them to bring the battle to me. I take the fight to them.
Mental toughness can be trained, like a muscle. A part of our brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) governs our ability to make decisions about doing hard things. It has been shown in research to actually grow in size when we routinely subject ourselves to difficulty. In essence, we get better at making hard decisions. That’s a skill all leaders should work on.
Bottom line, your ability to stay the course when life is difficult, and make good decisions, is a skill you can develop with mental toughness training. That’s why I run the mountains. That's why I seek out pain, and hard things.
Now, when life punches me in the mouth, I am much better equipped to deal with it because of the mental toughness training I have done…in the mountains, in the pain cave. The demons are not as loud, and much less powerful now. I am still far from invincible, but I am stronger after every race.