Friday, October 28, 2011

Endurance Racing: Can You Build Mental Toughness?

My biggest worry about gearing up for endurance racing is getting mentally tough, being capable of intensity over time. I don't have a problem with exercise itself, necessarily. In fact, I enjoy working hard, getting sweaty, going to Boulders climbing gym, canoeing, hiking for miles, even the occasional run. My biggest problem though, is after a few days or a few miles, I give up mentally.

 "Okay, that was some pretty good exercise! Let's stop now, and start again soon. Yeah, real soon."

I think my record was about three weeks of nearly-every-day exercising.

Unfortunately, that crap isn't going to cut it. When you set out to become an endurance rider, two things are of the utmost importance: fitness of the horse, and fitness of the rider. The most successful endurance riders are usually trim and athletic, possessing great natural balance, stamina and mental toughness. The most successful endurance horses are very fit, tough-minded horses with excellent stamina and good conformation. They are usually, but not always, Arabian horses. Together, a horse and rider team should look something like this: 

Let's just charge right up this 45 degree mountain face!

What do Annie and I look like? Kind of like that-- if we photo-shopped our fat asses, that is.

My arm fat wobble has been used to study tsunami patterns.
Yep, this is me, pudge and all. Actually, I think I'm about 10 pounds lighter in this picture than my current, staggering weight of 200lbs. It's not like this is a temporary thing, either. I've never been thin-- my lowest high school weight was 150 on a small-boned 5'6" frame. After high school, I gleefully and steadily gained about 8 pounds per year. MMmm, raw cookie dough...

This is Annie, at about two years old. She's not exactly a striking physical specimen either; in fact, she's a big, fat fuzzy cow horse. She's got an old injury from past neglect (more on that later) that could be a problem when we start to compete seriously. Annie also has conformation problems.

A horse's "conformation" is the way its body is put together, and it can greatly influence whether a horse is good or bad at any given sport, and even whether it becomes lame or injured. Annie is too long in the back; this picture doesn't show it much, but she's long enough that she can lose track of her butt on foggy mornings. A longer back means a weaker one, more prone to soreness and injury-- especially if the rider is a giant, cookie-dough-eating-fatass. It also means that she can't "collect" herself as easily-- a necessary part of an athletic horse's repertoire.

Annie is also cow-hocked, which means her lower rear legs turn outwards, so that her toes point in slightly opposite directions. It's not an unusual fault, especially in "stock" type horses-- but it's not a good thing. It reduces running efficiency, and puts more strain on the joints and muscles of her legs. Not all "cow hocked" horses are badly conformed; when the entire leg turns outward, so that the whole leg is symmetrical and not under torsion, it's called a "set" (as in, "that horse has a nice set") and is valued among draft breeders because it gives a horse a little more power in its rear wheel drive.

Stop staring at horse butts!

Getting back to our topic, Annie and I have another problem. We share a common philosophy about life: "Relax. Life is good. Let's enjoy it." Oh sure, we can be excited and even work hard sometimes-- but basically, we lack intensity. Our normal pace is a walk. We don't mind temporary exertion, but after a while we'd really rather just hang out.

Our lack of intensity is probably the biggest challenge facing us as we start to train for the Tevis. An endurance race IS intensity-- over miles, and miles and miles. For proof, check out the (extremely short) video below:

It's about 30 seconds of the Tevis endurance race, at a point on the trail where horses have to trot up a hill, turn sharply and cross a highway near a bridge. The riders slow down a little for the turn, but the pace they are traveling up the hill (about 5-9mph)* is about the same pace they'll have for almost the entire 100 mile race. In fact, at this point they've already ridden eight miles at this pace. They'll keep it up despite endless, climbing switchbacks of up to 40 degree slopes, cliffs, boulders, river crossings, traffic, snow and more. Sometimes they'll even go faster; occasionally it's necessary to canter, a speed of about 10-17mph.

During this long, fast journey, good riders "post" in the saddle as much as they can to reduce the amount of concussion on their horses' backs (and their own butts) and sometimes dismount on particularly steep slopes, both for safety and to give their horses a break.

All of this requires a TON of physical fitness and training, for both horse and rider, and the mental toughness necessary to keep it up week after week. Qualifying for the Tevis requires completing several long-distance endurance races,and qualifying for those requires a ton of mileage.

How are Annie and I going to manage this training? How are we even going to summon the willpower to train for the training? I had always hoped that after exercising for a while, it would somehow become easier to keep going. Hah! However, maybe my pathetic attempts haven't given me nearly enough time to "get in the habit." There are plenty of weight loss stories out there-- but I don't want to hear about diets and pounds. I would love to hear about how someone got tougher mentally over time, how they found the will to get up and jog in the mornings, every morning, for months. Is it even possible for a weak-willed shmuck like me to change that much? I guess we'll find out. I'm formulating my Tevis fitness plan as we speak...

*For comparison's sake, the average human strolls at about 2-3mph, walks briskly at 3.5, jogs at 4-5 and runs at 5-8mph. The best marathon runners blitz through a race at 10-13mph. Our sprinting speed is 18-25mph, but we can only keep that up for a few feet. The fastest human on record, Usain Bolt, traveled 27.79 mph during a 100 meter sprint-- after which he probably fell down and cried like baby.

"Owww. I think I threw up my lungs."

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