April 22, 2013

The Long Slow Climb

As Crabby continues lolling on the beach in Maui, we have another great guest post from Shadowduck! Not only may you recognize Shadowduck as a valued blog commenter and contributor, but he is the English translator of the popular Chilean webcomic "The Juanelo Show."

On August 16th 2009, at the final of the World Athletics Championships in Berlin, Usain Bolt broke his own 100 metre world record by eleven hundredths of a second, crossing the line in just 9.58 seconds. Four days later he repeated the feat, this time slashing eleven hundredths off his own 200 metre world record. In those few summer days he established himself categorically as the fastest human being of the modern age, and one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen.

So what has he been doing since 2009? Well, he's been doing fine. A few olympic medals here, a 4x100 relay world record there.

But what he hasn't done in the last three and a half years is run faster than he did in 2009.

There can't be many people who've made a commitment to a serious health and fitness goal, whether it be losing weight, doing "proper" press-ups, or becoming multiple olympic and world sprint champion, who haven't at some point found themselves lost in the dreaded wasteland of the Progress Plateau.

Those mountains look a LONG way away, huh?

Probably, things had been coming along nicely. A few ups and downs of course, but they were just minor bumps in the road to inevitable success until...

...the progress stopped. The number on the scale hammered a stake in the ground and set up camp. Your 5K record, which had been dropping like clockwork, was suddenly out of reach. Your fastest bike commute was a year ago. An extra pull-up became an impossibility, and the gym seemed to have bought in a new set of weights that were somehow ... weightier ... than before.

So, undeterred, you decide to change it up. You start a new diet; you buy new running shoes; you cross-train; you try "miracle" foods; you eat eight meals a day; you fast; you do intervals; you meditate; you avoid specific foods; you do high reps and low reps; you spend hours reading blogs and forums, trying to decide which of the seven or eight prevailing but totally contradictory opinions seems most likely to you; then you try all of them just to be on the safe side.

And. NOTHING. Works.


Sing it with me!

Then your motivation starts to suffer. You beat yourself up mentally. In your mind, you see a sign round your neck: "No progress made in the last six months!". Or nine months. Or if you're Usain, three and a half years. But is "Lightning" Bolt now somehow a failure? Are we all failures? Do the achievements of the past somehow not "count" any more, despite our stronger muscles, our slimmer waistlines, our improved agility or flexibility?

The thing is, that plateau isn't the flat piece of ground it appears to be. You're not standing still. Sneakily hidden underfoot there's a treadmill whirring away, trying to drag you back to where you started (and beyond). You probably know people who really are standing still on the treadmill. Every year they put on a pound or two, slow down a touch, tire a bit more quickly... The only reason you seem to be "standing still" is that you're moving forward as fast as the treadmill pulls you back!

How about if we take a little trip back in time, through those months, years ... maybe decades for some of us? Sit back in the comfort of your Delorean and watch the odyssey unfold in reverse. At first the plateau slides smoothly by, and you wind up the windows to avoid that nasty smell of frustration that's wafting in... But soon, the road starts to descend.

Your most recent triumph (remember how good that felt?) flies by in a waft of glory, followed by earlier achievements that ... perhaps ... seem a little less impressive to you now than they did at the time? You pass o'er hill and vale, seeing each success and every failure; the cookies that stayed in the jar, and the ones that didn't; the days you went to the gym, and the days you made excuses; the effort, the sweat and the grind as you climbed inch by painful inch toward that distant goal.

And then, finally, you arrive. Back at day one.

Your plateau? It's up there somewhere...

Can you see Past You? Hesitantly lacing up a brand new pair of running shoes, optimistically signing up at the gym, stepping off the scales and noting down the "starting" weight?

Why not take Past You by the elbow ... okay, now give them a moment to get over being accosted by a slimmer, fitter version of themselves from the future ... now let them get all the jokes about flying cars and tinfoil trousers over with (like time travel isn't impressive enough, already!). Take them by the elbow, lead them to the window and point to where you are now - give them binoculars, maybe - then ask them how they'd feel, knowing that with effort they could be way up there themselves someday!

Ask them if that tiny distant figure on the treadmill, up there on the plateau, looks like a failure to them.

Past You knew something that you've forgotten along the way. Without all the effort since that day, not only would you not be where you are now - you wouldn't even be where you were then! You'd be a little (or a lot) further down that slippery slope ... and your plateau would be an even more distant dream.

So maybe Usain Bolt will never run faster than he did in 2009, or maybe he will. But I'm pretty confident that he isn't going to give up trying, and I doubt he considers himself a failure.

And you know what? Neither should you.

Photos: Little Tunnel Climb: Caillum Smith,
Distant mountains C Jill Reed
Stop sign: Juhan Sonin
Alaska mountains: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

56 comments:

  1. Great post!
    Sometimes since I don't race much anymore, I feel like I have reached a plateau of sorts. I guess when you don't have any specific goals set, there is no way to mark progress, huh?!

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    1. Thanks! #8-)

      As it happens, the thought process behind this post was partly started by the fact that I haven't raced since late last year. I ducked a half-marathon because I was coming off a bout of illness and knew I'd be slow, then got totally demotivated and just stopped! As the mornings get lighter I'm starting to feel the itch again, so I think I might be back out there soon.

      But sometimes it's nice just to get out there and do what you do for the fun of doing it ... and who cares how fast or how far?

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  2. Loved this Shadowduck!

    It's so easy to feel discouraged when progress slams to a halt. And, as we get older, there's no freakin' way to keep "climbing" all the time. But I never really thought about how helpful it is to go back in time to remember every bit of struggle and progress along the way. Another great reminder to appreciate where we ARE more, rather than always obsessing about where we could be, should be, etc.

    Thanks so much for this!

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    1. Glad you liked it, Crabby!

      And I have NO idea how you manage to keep turning out the blog posts week after week - you deserve the vacation!

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  3. Wow.... And thanks!... I needed to hear this :) Plus - it's nice to know your not-so-secret identity, Shadowduck :)

    Anonymous Soon To Have an Actual Name

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    1. Thanks, Asthaan!

      As an International Mallard of Mystery I find it wise to keep my secret identity well hidden from prying eyes ... but hey, we're all friends here, right?

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  4. Don't make me tear up! Thanks this article is great. I have been in a funk lately so it really helps to hear this!

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    1. Cindy! I am reading this at work and getting all teary eyed too.

      Thank you Shadowduck! I needed this today, this week. Hell, this past month. What a great reminder to keep this health and fitness journey in perspective. I love the photos.

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  5. I've spent a lot of time looking back at my running speed from 3 years ago and lamenting how slow I've become...thank you for this post. Because after all, I am still running, and that is something to hold onto!

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    1. Exactly, Shelley. The difference between running a little faster or a little slower is tiny, compared to the difference between running and not running!

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  6. This is great, Shadowduck! I wish there were some way to do this. I don't care about looks, so a before picture doesn't do it. What would always get me right back on track would be some sort of physical sensation equivalent of a picture -- a way to briefly feel again how hard it was to breath at the top of the stairs, or how bad my knees hurt getting up off the floor. Because yeah, even if I never improve again, I am miles above where I was back then.

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  7. Thanks, Trabb's Boy!

    For me it'd be struggling to walk back from the local shops without stopping for a rest - up a hill I run and cycle easily now! I don't think I ever want to feel like that again though, even just briefly as a reminder... *shudder* The memory's faded, but it's still enough.

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  8. I've heard of such things...these 'plateaus' and have pretty much been in one for a year now. Recently I even gained a few pounds. How depressing. I've been trying to keep a stiff upper lip about it all, but it isn't easy. I like the analogy of the "Me" from two years ago talking to the "Me" now...or seeing the "Me" now and admiring how far I've come! So what if it is only 99 pounds right now and at one time was 105 pounds lost? This is still a great achievement! I will keep telling myself this. I can't give up now and go back to what I was! I just can't!

    Thanks for sharing ... it really does help to hear it.

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    1. "Only" 99 pounds! ONLY? Sherri, that's an enormous achievement and it's a real testament to your hard work, commitment and perseverance! With any luck you'll find a way to kick-start your progress again, but even if you don't you should be really proud of what you've already managed to do! #8-)

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    2. I know and I am trying to be proud and that is why I have not given up. Truth be told, that 100 pounds was not that hard to take off. I was stubborn and stuck with it and had all my ducks in a row to achieve that huge milestone. I know that and I am trying hard to keep that in my brain. I have always been such a failure at this weight stuff! I don't want to be a failure this time as this is the biggest achievement I have EVER done on my own with no gimmicks.

      But having had so much steady success for the 15 months it took to lose that 100 pounds, it has been a real test of perseverance to not let 'it' get to me that I have not lost anything since then.

      This last weight has been just stuck for over a year now. I am not trying to be ultra thin/skinny either. The old charts say I should be around 150 and I am just hoping to get to 179. Today I have 13 pounds to lose to get there. This is all new territory for me too. I am not sure if I should just be happy at this weight or if I should be worried sick that I am starting to gain it all back or if I am just crazy like the rest of the world and it will be what it will be. :D

      Thank you for your comments. (and for 'listening' to my story here)
      If I get lucky...no I mean if I do find that luck and kick start my progress again, that will be great. If not, I think the powers that be are just teaching me to love this version of me, as I AM so much better than I was two years ago!

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    3. Death Ride GrandmaApril 23, 2013 at 4:44 PM

      Wow, Sherri, you certainly should be proud!!! A year long plateau sounds to me like a major accomplishment. From what we all keep reading, you are among a very small percentage who can even reach a plateau after such an achievement. Most people seem to slide right back down that hill. I hope you don't let yourself worry too much - just give yourself a chance to be as pleased with your success as you deserve to be.

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    4. No kidding Sherri! Don't look at is as plateau: you have maintained a 100 pound weight loss for a year! That is a major major major accomplishment. Losing that weight was a ton of work too! Maybe your body (and mind) just needed some time to take a "break" and get used to it's new situation. You'll get those last dozen pounds and show them who's boss when you're good and ready.

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  9. When you reach "a certain age," it makes sense that progress would be that you aren't sliding backward.

    Thank you for the reminder that not losing ground is winning.

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    1. That is right Messymimi! I am almost 59 and I know I am slowing down a little so progress will be a little slower. Perhaps age is where this patience is coming from too? But ya....maintaining, even though not where I think it SHOULD be, is still maintaining a much healthier life and life style....and THAT is good! :D

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    2. YAY for holding on to the gains! #8-)

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  10. This is very motivational! I've been in a rut lately, but trying to work out of it, mainly using variety.

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    1. Glad you liked it CL, and yeah, sometimes a change of approach is all you need. I tend to alternate between cycling and running; when I get discouraged with one I just switch to the other and it's all fresh and new again!

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  11. Thanks for the reminder that sometimes just holding your ground is a major accomplishment. I've even found plateaus to be helpful - they just let everything settle in before you're ready for another push.
    Gaye

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    1. Thanks, Gaye!

      And do you find that a plateau in one area often coincides with progress in another area? Maybe it's not such a good thing to expect constant progress in every area of our lives...

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    2. Yes! That's a great point. I mean there is only so much energy and focus to go around! Pacing is essential. :)
      Gaye

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  12. oh CRABBBY I needed to see this today.
    this morning.
    off to play Sisyphus.

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    1. Welllll, could be worse - could be Prometheus. #;-)

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  13. Plateau's are part of every project whether it is getting fit, losing weight or climbing a mountain. When going up a mountain there are flat bit and even parts where you might actually be going down, but overall you are constantly getting nearer your goal. Just keep going, check you are heading in the right direction and remember persistence beats talent every day.

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    1. "Persistence beats talent every day" ... Why can I never remember phrases like that when I need them?

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  14. [applause]
    Having spent my twenties and early thirties in such poor health that getting out of bed for a couple of hours was a triumph, the plateau looks really good thirty years later.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

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    1. As in actual rock climbing, Tulisa? I did a bit of that years ago, but it hurts too much for me! #8-/

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  16. Keeping on keeping on, looking forward not back, and focusing on what I do have, not what I don't pretty much defines my way.

    I remember the fastest I've ever run. Won't ever have that combination of training, fear, and motivation ever again. I like the memory, though, and there will always be new challenges and mountains to climb.

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    1. Absolutely, Dr. J - there's ALWAYS someone faster, or stronger, or fitter, or whatever ... appreciating yourself for where you are and where you've been (and where you're going) seems like the only sane approach!

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  17. Death Ride GrandmaApril 23, 2013 at 4:56 PM

    Thanks for a great post, Shadowduck. It's important for us all to remember that we should take pleasure in what we have done and can do, and not just shrug it off & ask, so what's next??? Since we are all getting older every day (as an ancient guy who used to work with me said, well, it beats the alternative!), the idea that everything has to keep getting better/faster/bigger all the time is just a set-up for eventual failure. It doesn't make sense.

    I especially enjoy your idea of going back maybe 10 years and looking at myself today through those binoculars. What an intriguing image!

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    1. And the tinfoil trousers look AWESOME on you, DRG! #;-D

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  18. LOVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We all needed this! I know I am not what I was 5 or 10 years ago BUT I keep trying & doing my best! :)

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    1. But I bet there are some areas of your life where you're better now than 5 or 10 years ago? Development takes many forms!

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  19. The picture at the start took my breath away and then your words really hit home! Very well said, I especially liked your observation about feeling like you're standing still because you're only moving as far forward as the treadmill pulls you back. Perhaps a change of pace is what I need! Thanks.

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    1. Ah, the first picture was Crabby's addition (the rest were mine) - that's the advantage of her experienced blogger's eye! #;-)

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  20. Shadowduck, what a great post. (Timely for so many of us apparently!) I try to keep in mind that if I keep doing *something* then eventually it will result in the desire I want. It may not be in the time frame I want, but it will happen. As you say, standing still on the treadmill is not going to get me what I want.

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    1. So long as you're pushing forward at least as fast as the treadmill pulls you back, you're ahead of the game, bdaiss! Anything else is a bonus!

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  21. To avoid plateaus as much as I can, I find breaking my goal up into a collection of 'little' goals. It is easier to reach one of the 'little' goals than the 'big' goal and therefore it keeps me motivated! hmmm not sure if that made sense?

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    1. Makes perfect sense to me, Kimberley. That's a great way to avoid being overwhelmed by the size of a challenge!

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  22. As we get older, it will be hard to surpass our previous records or run faster than before. This is based from my own experience but I still continue to run and go hiking regularly. I am still passionate and I run because I find it relaxing and there is a sense of freedom in it.

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    1. I don't think you could find a much better reason for doing anything, Ken!

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  23. Wow, really good post. I've had experience with hitting an all time high and then not being able to hit anything like it again. I've been feeling pretty low lately but your post has really hit a chord with me :)

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    1. I expect the only people who never have that feeling are people who never try to do anything, Pauline!

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  24. This is one very inspiring post! I used to be very lazy when it comes to workouts when I was younger, but I am trying to change this habit as I grow older.

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    1. There are quite a few people here in exactly the same situation, Felix - myself included!

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  25. Thanks Shadowduck...vey inspirational photos...i love the mountains and the slab climb...and here i am stuck in the office! :(

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    1. Ah, but the "office" bit of life is what pays for all the fun bits!

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