Today’s Ask Chase question is from one of my little brother’s childhood buddies, Chuck. “I’m really curious/concerned,” he writes, “about the line between pushing one’s self outside the comfort zone and just beating the shit out of one’s body.” Chuck, kiddo, you Gen Z punk, your question is forcing some serious self-reflection on this aging endurance athlete. Knowing when to quit is something I’ve always struggled with.
In this post, we’re definitely going to talk about your feet. I’ve been concerned about your feet for at least three years now. But first, let’s take a minute to reconnect and fill in some backstory.
The Last Time Chuck Took My Advice, He Ended Up With Trench Foot
That’s how I remember it, anyway.
Five years ago, Chuck and my little brother, along with a few buddies, drove from the pinkie of Michigan to LA during their high school spring break. Along the way, they detoured to Colorado, Utah, and eventually Flagstaff to see me. Over dinner and Tecate Lite (their contribution), I offered my little brother advice he never took: go make a bunch of money abusing your body working wildland fire and then spend the rest of the year traveling. Chuck, like a good little brother, listened to my advice and went off to Alaska to fight fire. Then, he travelled around China. Learned to rock climb. Travelled some more.
Chuck is fun to follow on Instagram because of his outdoor adventures. One photo of his feet, though, haunts me to this day. The photo was taken after a long day cutting a fire line through a swamp in the Yukon.
I almost called his mom when I saw the photo. His feet will never be the same.
Before we talk about your feet, Chuckster, here are a few basic red flags about pushing your body too far and knowing when to quit.
Tips for Knowing When to quit: do as I say (advice from my pro roommates) and not as I do
Honestly, I’m a horrible person to ask about tuning into your body and not wrecking it too hard. The feeling of “holy shit I did it” and “hell yeah we made it” is the best feeling in the world to me. Basically, my parents created a pain tolerance superhuman who thrives on the feeling of survival. One of them always said “if you’re sick, go run it off” and the other always called a Christian Science practitioner to help me deny pain and repress any corresponding feelings.
For the most part, being extremely out of touch with my body makes me a good endurance athlete. A cowboy, if you will. But it also makes me an idiot, and it sometimes scares people. My ex-boyfriend recently told me he didn’t feel safe on my big expeditions because I always went too big, without enough planning, and never knew when to quit.
Talk about a confusing conversation. What he described as poor planning, denial, and risk, was fun and exciting to me. A discussion about our expectations before these trips probably would have helped.
Tip #1: Set Expectations Before You Start
If you don’t finish before dark, will you still keep going? If you get the shits (more about that below) what’s your backup plan? If you run out of snacks, does that mean you’re done for the day? If an old injury flairs up, when will you decide to call it quits?
Tip #2: quit if You Feel Shooting Pain.
I can think of one race where I really should have called it quits, but in the end, I recovered and it didn’t matter. The year I won 24-Hours in the Old Pueblo, I pinched a nerve in my hip, and pain shot down my leg with every pedal stroke. My coach said that’s just what happens during ultras. I didn’t know how to trust my body, or how to even consider quitting, so I pedaled for the last six hours of the race with just my left leg. I won, but I also could barely move for a month. I actually had to lift my leg with my hands to get in-and-out of bed and in-and-out of the shower.
Tip #3: Quit When Ibuprofen (or any pain killer) is the Only way you can Keep Pushing Hard
Now that I think about it, I had shooting pain in my shoulder and neck after a crash at the Whiskey Off-Road. I definitely should have dropped out of that race. But I didn’t know how to quit. For the next four months, the slightest jarring on my bike made the whip lash flare up and the pain so unbearable I had to guzzle Ibuprofen.
Ibuprofen blocks the feeling of lactic acid in your legs. Personally, I don’t perform well when I can’t feel the bite of lactic acid, I need it for motivation to keep going. It gives me something to focus on, something to push through.
Chuck, this topic is impossible for me! That’s performance advice, not advice comfort zones or body-destroying or know when to quit. A wise person would tell you that much Ibuprofen is bad for your kidneys. Let me go ask my roommates for advice on this topic. They are both strong athletes who are also really in tune with their bodies.
Tip #5: Get to Know Your Stress Response To learn when to call it quits
One of my roommates, Laur Sabourin, coaches for Rock Warriors Way. I’ve listened in on several of Laur’s coaching calls about improving stress tolerance with cold showers. Comfort Zones are Laur’s expertise.
Managing your body’s stress response—even if the ultimate goal is to widen your comfort zone—will also help you understand how much stress your body can handle. In other words, working to increase your stress threshold or comfort zone gives you the tools for knowing when you are pushing it too far and need to quit.
Truthfully, I have not tried cold shower training. All those wintertime plunges in Lake Michigan have me convinced I’m already a cold water Jedi. I know, I’m fooling myself, I always jumped in with my typical deny-all-stress-and-pain attitude. I‘ll start cold shower training tomorrow.
Laur Sabourin’s Signs it May be Time to Call it Quits (or at least tune in with your body)
- When your motivation ramp-up becomes artificial, and you start telling yourself you’re going for it anyway (this often means your body is maxed)
- When your vision goes in and out, or, even more simply, you’re scattered and not focusing well (your body, or your brain, could be maxed in this scenario)
- When you run out of snacks
Tip #5: When You Get the Shits, It’s Time to Call it Quits
Like the bad-advice-giving big sister that I am, I have never followed this rule. But my other roommate, Neha, who is both calculated and in-tune with her body, swears shitting yourself is the best way to know it’s time to stop.
Tip #6: When your feet tell you to call it quits, listen.
Cold, wet feet for extended periods of time can cause permanent nerve damage in your feet. I always assumed foot pain was frivolous; the easiest kind of pain to ignore and push through. I was so wrong. My feet were telling me to call it quits.
Chuck. Between wildland fire and working on a fishing boat, I’m guessing you learned this the hard way too.
The nerve damage can become so bad climbing shoes, even ones sized too big, are impossible to wear. It gets worse as you get older. I saw a podiatrist about nerve damage a few years ago, and he shrugged, said their was nothing to be done about it, and told me I should stop climbing. I’m lucky I was able to take up mountain biking. On really hot days, my feet swell in mountain bike shoes, and the nerve damage flairs up big time. So it’s not perfect, but it’s more bearable then climbing.
If it gets bad for you, I’ve heard acupuncture can help.
Massage your feet! Rub them with THC salve. These days, I believe feet are the most sacred body part. If you want to know when to quit, list to your feet.
Stretch and strengthen your hips. I have friends who already need hip replacements. They aren’t that old yet (I know late 30s sounds old, you Whipper Snapper, but it’s not, we’ve got a lot of ass left to kick in our 40s).
The Boomers told my generation to worry about our knees. Whatever. They went hard and then sat down for decades. Lesson your impact. Ride a bike. Stretch your IT band. Stay active.
Now I’m looking for Advice From You
How was working on a fishing boat in Alaska? I also told my brother he should go make a lot of money doing that, but of course he didn’t listen. He studied accounting instead, which means he makes real—consistent, benefited—money these days. I’m not ready to ask him for life advice just yet.
So how was working on the fishing boat? Would I hate it? Would I be twice as old as everyone on the boat? Probably a bad idea during a pandemic. But still. What do you think?