The Marine Corps Marathon happened this two weeks ago in Arlington and DC, and it was anything but optimum conditions. With rain, 98% humidity, and soaring temps, it felt more like racing in Florida than in Northern Virginia. Ironically, the unofficial Marine Corps motto is “Improvise, adapt, overcome”, and that is exactly what tens of thousands of runners had to do in order to complete this most challenging of races.
“Improvise, Adapt, Overcome” is a great mantra for not only the Marines, or for running the MCM, but for ALL exercise endeavors. So many times, our fitness ventures don’t go according to plan. How many times do our workout or race plans get derailed by some unforeseen challenge? Responding to adversity can make or break a workout- not to mention a race. By adhering to the Marine Corps mantra, we can ensure that while our outcomes may not exactly meet our expectations, our effort level can.
The mental fortitude that allows us to improvise in unforeseen situations, adapt to changing circumstances, and overcome obstacles that threaten success, can be the difference between finishing a workout or a race strong, or falling short. Here are three great examples of improvising, adapting, and overcoming different challenges to achieve success when fitness endeavors go awry:
A few weeks back, TFE triathlete Theresa Helsel had an incredible performance at the North Carolina Ironman 70.3 race in Wilmington, NC. She had a fast 1.2 mile swim, a solid 56 mile bike, and blistering 13.1 mile run to carry her across the line in just over 5 hours and 10 minutes. She was poised, methodical, and calm as she raced to her best finish ever.
But she didn’t start out that way. She had to IMPROVISE at the last minute to ensure she’d even be able to complete the race! As all triathletes know, a very big factor in racing long-course events is nutrition, with each athlete meticulously calculating how many calories, how much sodium, and how many carbohydrates they need to consume on the bike in order to have a strong run. After all, fueling for 5 hours can be tricky to say the least! Mess it up and athletes can be underfueled, resulting in the dreaded ‘bonk’, or overfueled resulting in the equally dismal GI distress (aka, being stomach sick). A veteran of dozens of triathlons, Theresa had her fuel down to a science, with all her vital nutrition in a highly concentrated water bottle she’d planned to carry with her on the bike. However, prior to the start, her bottle leaked out all over while setting things up in transition and was left without ANY of her fuel for the entire bike ride! After initially panicking as any triathlete would do, she was able to calm down and improvise a fuel solution. With the help of half a dozen other kind-hearted triathletes, Theresa combined a little bit of several other competitors’ nutrition into her single bottle. She had a cocktail of Gatorade Endurance, Tailwind, Scratch, Infinit, and others all mixed together to replace the customized nutrition she’d lost. Her ability to think quickly to improvise a solution allowed her not only to compete in the event, but to race faster than she’d ever had.
While the fueling wasn’t optimal, it allowed Theresa to be able to get the job done. As we confront the various obstacles that threaten our workout, an improvised solution may not be the best choice, but it gets the job done. Whether we’re competing in an Ironman triathlon without our custom fuel or show up at the gym and realize we’ve forgotten our socks for our workout; we can improvise. Keeping calm and looking for ways to complete the task instead of for reasons to throw in the towel allows us to see things a bit differently and find a way to reach our goals.
TFE personal training client Aileen Gozales leads a busy life. With one son off to college and her daughter in Jr. High, this single mom does it all- supporting her daughter's soccer team on the weekend and working in a high-stress consulting job during the week. With all she needs to do, she still prioritizes her heath and fitness by getting in two personal training sessions and several runs or bike rides during the week. However, even her best laid plans many times go awry, leaving Aileen to ADAPT her schedule to find ways to include all important exercise in her day.
During the days when a structured workout can’t be achieved, Aileen adapts her work environment to allow her the maximum amount of physical activity which helps her to maintain her fitness gains. When she takes the metro to work, she will purposefully park her car at the far end of the metro station, maximizing the amount of steps she takes to get to her train. She will also carry a backpack loaded with a laptop, files, and extra books for added weight while she power walks between buildings at her job. Aileen constantly adapts to her work environment by taking the stairs, whether it be at the metro or up the 4 flights to her office. Even though this isn’t a structured workout, she burns calories, improves her cardiovascular system, and builds her muscular endurance- quite literally- all in a day’s work. As I’ve said before, something is always better than nothing, and this is a great example of Aileen doing something by adapting her environment to help meet her fitness goals.
When we change our perspective to ‘HOW can I fit in my fitness’, instead of ‘there’s NO way I can fit in fitness into my busy life’, then we can find a way to adapt to any situation to help us remain healthy and active. This is a critical key for Aileen and should be for anyone who wants to prioritize their health and fitness goals.
Sometimes, there’s simply nothing we can do to change our circumstances for the better- we simply have to OVERCOME a challenging situation that throws us off our game, whether that be in a highly competitive event like Ironman or during the highly complicated routine of life. Recently I had a situation where that very thing happened:
Last month while competing in Ironman Maryland, I was caught off guard and had to work hard to overcome a challenging start to the race. As many know, there are many moving pieces to an Ironman event, and to ensure we have the best performance possible, triathletes have specific pre-race routines we follow in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to a big event. Race morning of the Ironman is no time to change that routine, however that is exactly what happened.
My pre-race routine was going well, and I’d just finished pumping up my bike tires in the transition area, dropped off my special needs bags (extra things I may need while running or riding), checked my run and bike gear, and headed over for one last bathroom break prior to the race starting. According to the race schedule, I had plenty of time- yet as I stood in line for the bathroom, to my horror I heard over the loudspeaker that the race would be starting EARLIER than the prescribed time. I was still in line for the bathroom with 15 people in front of me, and the race was starting early! So, I stepped out of line, began the process of getting on my wetsuit, and by the time I zipped it up and put on my goggles, the gun went off.
As with all ‘rolling start’ Ironman races, athletes self-seed by projected swim finish time, and I wanted to be in the 1:00-1:10 group, which was the second group to go off. By the time I cut to the front of the line, meandering my way through literally thousands of other anxious swimmers, I entered into the water with the 1:20-1:30 group. This meant I would be swimming the entire 2.4 mile course with people that were much slower than me, causing me to swim over, around, and across hundreds of others, significantly slowing me down and making for a much more physically demanding swim effort.
In this case, (and many others in both fitness AND life) there was nothing I could do to improvise, adapt, or change my situation. As the saying goes, “it is what it is”. And on that day, it ‘was what it was’. I simply had to work a little bit harder than I would otherwise have to, and get a less than optimal result. However, I didn’t panic, stayed calm, and kept perspective. This allowed me to be patient on the swim and later on the bike, being careful not to overdo it and push too hard on the bike in order to ‘make up’ for the slow swim. In times past, when unforeseen circumstances have happened in a race (such as a bike flat, stomach issues, equipment malfunction, etc.) I’ve been derailed by focusing on what’s gone wrong, NOT by staying in the moment and focusing on what’s going right or by what I can do to systematically make up the shortfall.
This time, however, I remained calm and focused on the present. I just chipped away little by little at the deficit and overcame a terrible race start to have a solid personal best finish. The mental focus to stay in the present is critical in overcoming hurdles that threaten to slow our progress toward any goal, whether it be during an Ironman race or a slightly less ambitious health and fitness goal.
So, the next time your workout plans, race plans, or life plans go awry, take a cue from the Marines. Have the mental fortitude to improvise, adapt, and overcome. It may not be the expected result- but you can ensure the expected effort will be there and the results will take care of themselves. In fact, they may be even better than you’d hoped- just ask Theresa!