Sunny Brain or Rainy Brain?

AJW discusses how we can retrain our brains to deal with ultramarathon adversity.

By on July 13, 2012 | Comments

AJWs TaproomI have written a bit about the brain and ultramarathon running in this space over the past few months and from that you can tell that I believe, clearly, that the mind/body connection is an essential component to success in ultramarathon running. That said, a book I read last week provides further evidence of the importance of retraining the brain not only for running, but for life.

Dr. Elaine Fox’s book, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: How to Retrain Your Brain to Overcome Pessimism and Achieve a More Positive Outlook suggests that while brain circuits vary from person to person, it is possible to strengthen what she calls the “sunny” brain and weaken the “rainy” brain through certain behavioral adjustments and mindful choices.

Among the science-based “retraining” methods she describes in her book are these:

  • Face your fears head on. Step outside your comfort zone to help eliminate fear, anxiety and negative thoughts that can stand in the way of success.
  • Re-evaluate events in your everyday life. Tell yourself that maybe things aren’t so bad.
  • Practice mindful meditation. Allow feelings and thoughts to pass through your mind without judging or reacting to them; that helps create a sense of detachment from negative experiences.
  • Take control over how you feel instead of letting feelings control you. A sense that you control your destiny can help you bounce back from setbacks and maximize your enjoyment of life.
  • Laugh. Use positive feelings to counter negative ones.

From my perspective, all five of these “retraining” methods have a direct correlation to success in long-distance running.

The best and most successful ultrarunners I know acknowledge that what they are doing is really hard and has, inherent in it, a certain amount of risk. However, acknowledging that risk and facing the fear and uncertainty that accompanies the risk ultimately helps these runners succeed. In life there is so much that is out of our control, addressing fear allows us to find autonomy in the uncertainty and achieve some degree of control thereby improving our chances of success.

I have long believed that having the ability to re-evaluate goals and expectations on the fly while in the midst of a long ultramarathon race makes the task at hand less daunting and subsequently allows the runner to break down a seemingly endless slog into more bite-sized pieces. This ability to constantly re-assess can be extremely helpful when the late night 100-miler demons emerge imploring the body to stop. As the great Ann Trason always said, “I just run tree to tree.”

The meditative aspect of running has long been part of its allure for many. From the “Marathon Monks” in Japan to the Sri Chimnoy runners all over the world, the spiritual aspect of long-distance running has served to center people in purposeful, mindful action since long before there were ultramarathon races. In particular, the fact that running allows us to disassociate from daily life and find meaning in the simple act of moving through space is fundamental to the detachment mechanism in our brains. In essence, we need to run!

Taking ownership of pain and suffering is a big part of ultramarathon survival. Certainly, there are times when we need to listen to our bodies and slow down or stop. However, most of the time, the pain is temporary and a seasoned ultrarunner’s brain can accept the piercing blisters, the searing quad pain, and the inevitable stomach discomfort and forge on taking control of the discomfort by turning it into an advantage. This ability to pivot around suffering is what the great blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer calls, “The Adversity Advantage.”

Never, ever underestimate the power of humor to turn a negative situation into a positive one. I recall Mile 85 of the Angeles Crest 100 back in 2005 when Craig Thornley was pacing me. Upon leaving the aid station at Idlehour I promptly vomited up the entire contents of my stomach. As I was leaning over the side of the trail beginning to feel sorry for myself Craig said simply, “Well, that was a rejection!” We both began cracking up hysterically and continued on down the trail with smiles on our faces. I still, to this day, can’t think of that moment without laughing.

Over the next two weeks hundreds of people will be tackling the roads and trails of Vermont, Colorado, Nevada and California attempting to run 100 miles. Inevitably, many of these runners will go through some dark moments and face the seemingly insurmountable doubts that often accompany these secular pilgrimages we call ultramarathons. Perhaps in these moments the runners would be well served to reflect of Dr. Fox’s book and find a way to dig deep into the well of optimism that exists in all of us. I believe, in fact, that while we need optimism to succeed in running we also, perhaps more significantly, need running to remain optimistic.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Taproom Beer of the Week
Founders Devil Dancer Triple IPAAs this is Hardrock weekend, I think a hardcore beer is the logical choice for the Beer of the Week. Last week in my local beer store they had a very limited supply of Founder’s Devil Dancer Triple IPA. In fact, the supply was so limited in the store that they limited purchases to two per customer (and that was at $5.95 a piece for a 12 ounce bottle!). Anyway, this beer packs a punch at 12% ABV and a whopping 112 IBU’s. In spite of that, it is surprisingly and dangerously drinkable. A perfect accompaniment to Hardrock weekend and the polar opposite of last week’s beer. :-)

Call for Comments
What techniques do you employ for training yourself to overcome adversity and how do you deal with it when it inevitably arises in an ultramarathon?

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.