Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Susan Rule

note: this is a follow-up to my previous post regarding quitting and knowing when to quit (reference: quitting). this post deals with a underlying assumption inherent to the decision to quit but which i didn't address in the previous commentary, partly because for reasons of focus but more because i think it is important enough to warrant its own article: quitting when you don't have the capacity to know to quit.

there are times in sports when an athlete reaches a condition where they are no longer able to exercise rational decision-making (some people think they never do, but that's a different story). for any number of possible reasons--harsh environment, substantial injury, poor nutrition, sheer effort, or outright exhaustion--an athlete may be pushed so far that they no longer have comprehension of themselves or their surroundings, nor coherence in their thoughts or actions, nor control of their mind or body. quite literally, you no longer have the capacity to know what you are doing--or what you should, and actually need, to do.

with respect to endurance sports, i've written about this particular state before, with videos of specific examples from the Ironman World Championships in Kona. if you can, i strongly recommend you take a look (as hard as it may be) to understand the condition i'm talking about:
as you can see from the videos, it's not pretty. and in some situations, it's deadly. Chris Legh, for example, suffered necrosis of his intestines (i.e., parts of it literally died) and doctors said that his life was actually in danger. what happened to him affected the rest of his life and career. these are the kinds of things no one wants to see result from Ironman...which is why we have cautionary tales about them.

in this kind of state, there are 3 things that happen:
  1. you cannot recognize your situation, and so cannot recognize that stress (i.e., a challenge pushing you temporarily outside your comfort zone, and so a useful spur to expand your performance capabilities for better long-term health) has become distress (i.e., a danger that can permanently injure or impair you, and so destroy not only your performance capabilities but also your overall long-term health)
  2. you want to keep going into greater distress, because you are at the mercy of the biochemical processes in your body (endorphins, adrenaline, whatever cocktail of hormones is in your system) driving your mind to continue in a manner that is obsessive-compulsive. horses are known to run themselves to death, and human beings (particularly athletes motivated to compete) are no different.
  3. you don't know you're in distress. you may know that you're in trouble, but you don't know how bad things are...or you don't care.
as a result, it becomes highly unlikely that as an athlete you can make a good decision about racing, quitting, or anything at all. you can make all the plans and set all the criteria about when it's good to quit, but once you're in the intensity of the race and in the moment of competition, you'll find it very difficult to say no or no more or i quit. in other words, your judgment will become impaired.

and you can't rely upon race organizers (who are already pressured by corporate sponsors, host governments, and individual competitors to have the race) to protect you. and you can't count on the race volunteers or medical staff (who may be too far away or too otherwise preoccupied) to save you. and can't expect other competitors (who are in the same situation you are) to help you. you are, in essence, on your own out there in the distance.

and if you push hard enough far enough long enough, you'll lose yourself and become one of those cautionary tales.

in which case, what do you do?

a friend of mine told me his response was The Susan Rule. it's named for his wife, Susan. it arose following his involvement in the inaugural Ironman Utah from 2002. that Ironman was made infamous because of severe weather that ultimately contributed to the drowning death of a competitor.

at that race, my friend woke up race day morning and saw the conditions, but even though other athletes were refusing to start the race because of the storm, he was still adamant on doing it--the reason, he told me, was because he'd built up his emotions to such a high state that he could not bring himself to quit. according to him, it was probably the stupidest thing he ever did, since he found himself stranded on the run course disoriented and lost, with no motor control over his body, and rapidly descending into hypothermia. although he didn't quit, the medical staff ensured that he took a DNF before his situation became critical.

it was because of that race that he and his wife had a very long, very intense conversation about why he was racing, what he wanted from racing, and most importantly, when he should continue a race and when he should quit a race. it was out of this that he realized that no race was worth permanently disabling or destroying his own health, and that as an athlete in a race he is not always able to recognize when either scenario is happening.

the result was The Susan Rule. the rule is simple: if his wife, Susan, tells him to quit, he quits. no questions. no debates. no complaints.

there is, of course, a bit more to the story. my friend says that he and his wife always take time before every Ironman to discuss why he's doing it and what he wants to get from it and thus when it's acceptable to continue and when it's acceptable to quit. they then discuss at what points during the race she will check on his status and make the decision for him.

he says The Susan Rule has been exercised once, and he didn't regret it. in fact, he thinks it probably saved him from another dangerous situation (this time in high heat, high humidity, and approaching heat stroke).

of course, the key thing implicit in The Susan Rule is trust. he trusts his wife to understand him, understand his race, and thereby understand the appropriate time and conditions he wants to use as his criteria to quit.

i've come to think that The Susan Rule--or at least some form of it--is relevant for all of us. because we can't always make the best decision for ourselves and we won't always have the capacity to recognize our own distress.

in those times, we need to be able to rely upon someone else. we don't all have a Susan. we don't all have a spouse. but we can certainly find someone we trust. someone who has our best interests in their heart. someone we know understands us and our race. and above all, someone who has the judgment to know when both are in danger and the courage to then stop us from going any farther.

and if we don't have that kind of someone, maybe it's time we start doing what it takes to find one.

because sometimes we'll be on a path to self-destruction and won't know it, or even if we do we won't be able to help ourselves get away from it. it is at those times that we need someone to take our hand and guide us along, so that we can change to a better that allows us to survive and continue and move on with our deeper mission to explore ourselves and our universe and make of the two a greater whole--a whole as hopefully as great as the connection we have with our better halves.

1 comment:

Makenzie said...

Nice stuff here. Enjoyed reading the post.