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Learn to overcome: practicing deliberate adversity training

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

Summer is over. All summer Lake Michigan is one of the places where I can most certainly find peace. Toes and heels alternately press imprints into the sand that quickly disappear as the waves smooth them over returning the sand back into a smooth, never-ending shoreline. Last weekend, as I walked miles on the shoreline, I contemplated how many weekends it would take me to walk the distance from Chicago to Traverse City. I wondered- could I accomplish this in one summer? How many miles could I cover in one day? How much water and supplies would I need to carry? These types of questions are relatively new to my brain. Over the last several years I have started a new journey on my road to recovery. Addiction, clinical depression, PTSD, and SAD, and anxiety have all been much more under control since I began this relatively new journey of adversity training.

Last fall, school did not begin. I was at home, with 7 children, trying to do remote learning on five devices with them and it was one of the lowest points of my life. The compounded stress of finances lost from the loss of my job to stay home with my children, the stress of COVID, and the intense stress of trying to manage the schooling of my children made me want to stay in my bed, cover up in the dark, make unhealthy choices with food, and use wine to self medicate and “unfeel” my emotions. It was too much. I slipped back into unhealthy patterns in every area of my life, relationships with people, food, and alcohol became toxic poisons that drained me and did not serve me. I was enslaved to negative patterns and really just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. By late October I had gained 19 pounds and I was crying a lot, staying in bed way too much and was completely unavailable to my children. I knew that I needed a plan, a goal, and a healthier way to manage stress.I was ruining my relationships both inside and outside my home. All of the progress that I had worked so hard to achieve in my life felt like it was being ripped away- torn apart and I wasn’t sure I could recover from this relapse.

I began to pray for a way out. I forced myself to get out of bed. Forced myself to begin cleaning my house, invited a trusted friend who helped me clean it up. My real lifeline came in the form of a discount code. That is right- a discount code! A friend of mine ran her first marathon about five years ago after being inspired by a talk I gave to a group after my first marathon. She went on to begin running ultramarathons (30-100 mile distances). I was continually astounded by her accomplishments. One night as I surfed Facebook, she sent me a message- “hey- I am running a 100K in March, I have a great discount code if you want to run it!” I quickly googled it and found out that 100K is about 62 miles. “No thanks”, I replied. “I haven’t run a step in months, and I am up about 20 pounds”. She continued, “the discount code is valid through the weekend, so think about it, you have plenty of time to train!”

The next two days were spent googling training plans and reading everything I could read about ultramarathons, on Sunday night I signed up for the race and told my husband. I am pretty sure that my husband thought I truly was crazy at that moment. I asked him if he honestly thought I could do it. He said he wasn’t sure, and I think that was generous.

I define adversity training as the process of setting a seemingly impossible goal, walking backward to where I am currently, and figuring out what steps will be needed to accomplish it. It is deliberately placing myself into an adverse situation, driving me to develop discipline, accountability and community support, to achieve something that seems at first glance, insurmountable. The first step for me was signing up for the race. Second, I told literally everyone that I signed up for it. I posted about it on social media, told all my family and friends and joined several running groups on Facebook. Then, I looked up training plans and marked up my calendar with numbers- first 1, 3, and 5 mile runs, progressing to 4,6, and 8 mile runs, then gradually 15, 9, 22, and 30 milers. There were 5 months until the race- the worst months of the year for my SAD. I was scared. Petrified actually. One thing I have learned about myself is that I loathe failing. I am very intrinsically motivated to compete against myself and prove to myself that I can do things. The external motivation was a huge pirate ship medal of completion and the feeling of accomplishment at the finish line. I wrote down the following sentence on the top of each page of my calendar, “I will train for and complete a 100K in less than 27 hours!” (27 hours was the maximum time allotted to finish the race). I had severe doubts. I had absolutely not run a single step in about six months. Let the training begin!

Training is never fun. It is a practice of discipline, grit, failure, tears and accomplishment. The first couple of weeks I spent a lot of time walking and talking to God, pleading with God and asking for relief from the grief, stress, anxiety and addictions that I was still participating in daily. There were mornings that it took me almost two hours just to get out the door, then a mile of complaining, then finally, after that first mile, that wonderful feeling, of entering into my pain- not just the physical discomfort of my body, but the mental darkness that I was feeling, then pounding it out of my body, step by step on the road. I never regret a training run at the end. At the end, regardless of my speed, or distance covered- there is a sense of accomplishment. Of doing what I set out to do. Finishing the distance that was laid out for me in my plan and being able to mark it off, cross it out and move forward.

There is a training book called Relentless Forward Progress, that my ultramarathoner friend sent to me whose title became my new mantra. I would repeat those words to myself on difficult days, and my trusty mantra that has been with me for years- never ever ever give up! Training slowly began to replace the negative space that occupied my mind. I slowly began to drop some of my Covid weight, naturally began fueling my body more appropriately and let go of some other toxic patterns in my life. Through the discipline of consistently placing myself into adversity I was teaching myself how to overcome. I began listening to podcasts about ultramarathon runners and found a common theme. Many endurance athletes are former addicts. Addicts are used to living in their pain and this “skill” transfers well to endurance sports. By entering what athletes call “the paincave” we utilize the discomfort of endurance events to physically remove pain from our bodies- this can be physical, emotional or spiritual pain. We triumph over it day after day, mile after mile and over time our negative addictions of seeking dopamine response are replaced in a positive dopamine response that is achieved through endurance sports and exercise.

God speaks to me frequently during my training as well. Some days I spent 6-8 hours running! God spoke truth and love to me, God spoke conviction to me. I spent many hours repenting,asking God to help me to turn away from things that were destroying me, and used my internal competitiveness to drive out the feelings of wanting to quit. God placed specific people in my day to ask me how my training was going- especially on the days where I skipped my training. God used accountability from others to drive me on the days where I just didn’t think I could do it. I did miss some training days-days where I ran out of time, or couldn’t get myself out of the darkness in my head, but each time, I knew I had to get back on track to be able to finish.

God showed me that being a disciple- just like training- requires discipline. More days than not, I did not want to train. Discipline is doing it anyway. Adversity training develops discipline. Discipline develops successful patterns and drives out addictive patterns. Discipline leads to success.

The day of the race was one of the hardest days of my life. I had never run more than 30 miles and yet I had to double that on race day. I was scared, I prayed a lot. I cried a lot. I got blisters on my feet. Thoughts about quitting kept creeping in. Self talk flip flopped from “ I can’t do this, I should just quit, people would understand.” to “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, and, relentless forward progress.” Battling my own mind was probably worse than all the blisters, lost toenails and pain I experienced. In the last mile, I yelled out to God- “ I didn’t believe I could do this- YOU believed in me- YOU just needed ME to believe in ME- Thank you GOD for giving me this race to run- I believe- help me overcome my unbelief!” I made it to the finish line- with 8 hours to spare.

Friends, I encourage you to use adversity training in your life. It doesn’t have to be running. You can begin setting goals. Make them attainable, measurable and achievable- but challenge yourself. As you accomplish small things, set bigger goals, success has a cumulative effect, and a positive effect on those around you. This past fall 17 friends trained with me and completed their first triathlon! You can make an impact on your own life and the lives of others simply by practicing adversity training in your own life. I dare you to try it! Relentless forward progress- is accomplished one brutal step at a time, but someday soon those miles will turn to smiles. In the meantime, if you are looking for me- I am staring at maps of the Lake Michigan shoreline planning my next summer adventure, or I am running. I registered for the 100K again- I want to beat my time from last year.

Written by Rachel Olexa


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