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“I’m Making Oxygen Choices.”

What an Altitude Marathon Taught me about Mental Self-Care

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Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash
Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

I’d run marathons before—maybe three others. This would be my fourth, and a “training” run leading to my second Marine Corps Marathon which was a training run for my first two ultras. Yes, there was a time I totally digged this whole distance running thing. 

I knew altitude would be an issue; I flew into Jackson Hole a day early; got a solid dinner and decent night’s sleep the night before. Still, knowing altitude would affect me and feeling its effect were two very different things. 

The smallish group of runners lined the start; the gun fired; some dashed off; I picked up my feet in a forward motion, trying to be smart and pace myself for the 26.2 mile journey ahead. I saddled up next to two men, falling naturally into their pace. So, they started talking to me and invited me to run with them. I did, because we all know you need some company on a long stretch of road—well, at least I do, especially when you can’t use iPods and the like. 

They talked, I listened. I learned about their work and their mega love for running. As we ran, I started noticing running felt hard for me. My body felt like I was on mile 15 not mile 3. I told myself to focus, to stay in line with them. I told my body “you’ll be fine, you’re just warming up.”. 

My body told my head to shut up, the altitude is hitting us early and hard. We rounded a tree-covered corner, and one gentleman asked: “So, what do you do?”

Without thought, I muttered “I’m making oxygen choices.” Breath. “Can I tell you later?” Breath.

They kindly laughed, acknowledging the change from the DC area to the Jackson Hole area, and talked most of the way until my body simply could not hold pace. I was running through thick air with heavy legs, or so it felt. I waived them on and ran my own race, finishing at my slowest time ever, having walked and run more than ever, but finishing nonetheless. 

Run Your Race to Finish

To finish that race, I had to set aside my ego. To not hit the wall, crash, and be swept up by the sweeper bus,  I had to make oxygen choices.

I had to take care of my own oxygen needs at the expense of talking to and entertaining those around me. I had slow down to run my own race. I had to bring my mind and body back onto the same page. 

Making literal oxygen choices is easy. Our bodies tell us to get air immediately, when we have little or none. We feel immediately the discomfort of deprivation.

Making figurative oxygen choices is not always easy. Regardless of what we may be feeling, our minds tell us: to focus on others; to not be selfish; to go a little harder a little longer; that we’re fine, we’re just warming up. 

And we acquiesce because we may not immediately feel the discomfort of deprivation. If we do, we ignore it. Because we think we can. The side effects of ignoring a figurative need for oxygen are not as immediate as ignoring the literal need. 

The reality, though, is each of us is running his/her own race. To finish that race we need to keep our mind and body on the same page. We need to make figurative (and literal) oxygen choices. We need to put our oxygen masks on first, so that we can talk to and entertain those around us––care for those around us. 

How to O2 Yourself

The trick I have learned over the years is to pull back before I think I need to. As in that marathon, when I started to feel the pressure and started to hear my body and mind arguing, I pulled back. I could have pushed harder for longer. I could have gone another couple miles with them before trailing off, I could have tried to engage in conversation. But I didn’t. 

In work, in life too, I know what my breaking point feels like. I’ve flirted with it enough. Now, I pull back miles before I near it. I turn to my meditation or breathing or slow walking, other mindfulness activities to reconnect my body and brain. I ask myself: OK, what really matters right now and what can wait even another few hours or a few days?

In work and life, and in exercise, I make oxygen choices. Where and when do you make oxygen choices? 

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