In 1985, while making the very difficult descent after summiting the 21000 foot  Siula Grand Mountain in the Peruvian Andes, Two British mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates ran into a catastrophe when Simpson suffered a broken leg; basically a death sentence above 19000 feet on the completely uninhabited, snow-covered mountain in Peru. Simpson had to do something to stop his mind from descending towards death. He knew he had screwed up big time. Then something clicked in him. He stayed silent. He knew “if he said a word he would panic, he could feel himself on the edge of it. He took cognitive control. He had successfully put his thinking brain in balance with his emotional brain so that the two could help him to function. Yates rappelled down to Simpson and examined him. He gave him some pain medicine. Neither spoke. As Simpson put it, “In an instant an uncross able gap had come between us.” They were both working on shifting decisions out of the amygdala and into the neocortex. In such a dire emergency, the amygdala would urge instant action without thought. It has the chemical authority to do that, too. So it took energy, balance, and concentration to shift control to the executive functions of the neocortex. Time was of the essence. They had run out of water and fuel. They had to get down fast of they would both die. There approach was orderly, bold yet cautions, inventive; in a moment it would also become playful as well. Simpson was learning what it meant to be playful in such circumstances: “A pattern of movements developed after my initial wobbly hops and I meticulously repeated the pattern. Each pattern made up of one step across the slope and I began to feel detached from everything around me. I thought of nothing but the pattern.” His struggles had become a dance, and the dance freed him from the terror of what he had to do. “ I knew I was done for,” Simpson wrote later, “It would make difference in the long run, but I kept going because of the pattern”. “ I had forgotten my partner was even there, I lost track of time, I had even almost forgotten why I was even doing the pattern for a while.” Then Simpson went over the edge again, and this time Yates had no choice but to cut the rope, almost certainly killing his friend. Simpson fell for a long time, and much to his surprise woke up very much alive. On the almost impossible climb out of the crevasse, Simpson returned to his old friend, the patterns and rhythms of the dance. He’d place his ice tools, plant his good foot, then pull hard while hopping upward to plant the foot a bit higher up. “Bend, hop, rest; bend, hop, rest…” He found that once more concentrating on the pattern helped him ignore the pain. At the same time that he took the greatest risk, he was also safe-guarding himself. “I resisted the urge to look up or down. I knew I was making desperately slow progress and I didn’t want to be reminded of it by seeing the sunbeam still far above me.” This poses an interesting question: How can you know something and still keep from reminding yourself of it? Indeed, when Simpson said he “knew”, he means that his hippocampus contained a short-term memory pattern about his situation. But the visual perception of how far he had to go would be sent straight down through the thalamus to the amygdala to be screened, and that it was he wished to avoid, because it might trigger a whole new set of emotions that he didn’t need right now. He could bump what was in his working memory out by concentrating on something else: his pattern. It was a wise choice. Keep the perceptual input to a minimum right now. Don’t feed the amygdala any scary raw data.

We can learn a lot from Joe Simpson we can use to get us through those tough runs & rucks. I personally have adopted Dean Karnazes mantra of "Smooth, Long, Strong". Basically ever time my left foot hits the ground I say "Smooth", then "Long", then "Strong", I say nothing the next time my left foot hits the ground, then start all over again. This mantra works for me for about 17 miles, then I have to change it up. Recently, at the Spartan Death Race, I simply went with "Pick It Up, Put It Down", obviously just instructing my body what I should be doing with my feet.  Even if your skeptical, I encourage you to try it out. Say the mantra out loud or too your self. I have found this to be one of the most effective interventions that I can give a Soldier on the spot during a ruck march and it works almost immediately by not only getting their mind off what ever misery that they are experiencing, but also helps to get their breathing, heart rate, and brain waves in rhythm.

 


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