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Coaches Blog

Compartmentalization and Endurance Athletes

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

After finishing the race around 6:45pm, I had been on my bike for over 18-1/2 hours (moving time was over 15-1/2 hours). We started at midnight. It was seemingly pitch-black with a 4% sliver of a moon rising at 4:30am (we didn’t see it until 6:30am). The first 4-1/2 hours were single track on rocky ledges in what I can only image are beautiful trails coming out of Fruita, Colorado. But this night, it was just downright crazy.

The Race Director decided not to mark the trails but rather require all participants to have a working GPS that had moving maps of the .GPX file that was the Kokopelli Trial: 140 miles from Fruita, CO to Moab, UT. Oh, and we also needed SPOT - the emergency SOS GPS device in case we got lost or injured so we could signal a helicopter rescue.

How in the world can someone mentally prepare for something like this? It was my first time on these particular trails and first time for a midnight start in darkness. I had been up for 18 hours, with the exception of a 45 min nap I was able to squeeze in around 4pm.

Answer: Compartmentalization.

"Compartmentalization is a subconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person's having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.”

Many athletes experience a similar feeling when attempting a Half or Full IRONMAN, a marathon, a long-course Spartan Race or the ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro. So the mind finds a way, sometimes as a reaction and sometimes as a willful choice, to reduce the fear, anxiety and the unknown of the event in order to complete the task at hand. I think we all know of professions that utilize compartmentalization on a regular basis - any job that puts lives at risks or deals with life and death on a daily basis. But as athletes, we should recognize that this also occurs often in the world of endurance sports.

Even more important than recognizing that we compartmentalize is recognizing that we need to break open that compartment and let our anxieties, fears and insecurities OUT. In other words, don’t fight the post-event onslaught of emotions that will want to arise…let them come.

For me, the race ended Saturday night. I drove the 9 hours home on Sunday still pretty high off the incredible event I participated in the day before. But that night, in the comfort of my own bed, I hardly slept. My mind was filled with fear and panic at what I realized I did. I got out of bed on Monday morning with a rotten pit in my stomach. I told my wife, father and many Team MPI Coaches of the experience and as the day progressed, I felt better and better. I realized as the week progressed, that it was essential to go through that process - not to fight it, but to rather identify what my brain needed to do.

So recognize your skill to compartmentalize. But more importantly, be accepting and allow the mind to bust open that compartment when it’s no longer needed. I believe it’s essential for our mental health and enjoyment of life.

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