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Sleepness Nights and Mind Games

By Martha Grinnell | Dec. 06, 2018, 5:52 p.m. (ET)

Martha Grinnell competes in the 1995 St. Croix Triathlon.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, you can probably imagine what was going through my head in this one. The race photo that accompanies this article was taken during the last mile of the 1995 St. Croix Triathlon. I vaguely recall finishing pretty far back among the pro women, perhaps in 10th place. Frankly, I’m amazed that I finished, considering I had been up all night, sitting by a pool in a lounge chair. I witnessed the sunset and the sunrise (and no, I wasn’t drinking cocktails). I was so tired and discouraged that I stopped during the second mile of the run and handed my race number to an official as my “I quit” red-flag signal. I sat there on a curb for about a minute. Then I thought about the terrible guilt I would feel for giving up. I took my number back and trudged on.

I should fill in a bit more of the story by telling you that on the day of the race, I was about nine months into a full year of an intimate relationship with insomnia. Let’s call her Sveta. Sveta came into my life one night while I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the 1994 Goodwill Games Triathlon. Initially, I had trouble sleeping because the security guards on the Team USA hallway were smoking, and second-hand stench was slipping under the door of my hotel room. I decided to open the window a crack to let in some fresh air, which resulted in allowing a mosquito to invite itself in. The buzzing sound circling my head, combined with the anticipation of getting bitten, tortured me for a good hour until I finally turned on the light and took a magazine to it. I shut off the light—but somehow turned on the start of a mind-flow of self-sabotaging thoughts. Sveta had entered my life. Her voice would say, “What if you really fail here at the Goodwill Games?” followed by, “How are you going to race well when you have not slept for days?” followed by, “You miss home—I can tell.”

When I returned home to Massachusetts, Sveta came with me, and her bedtime banter carried on. The inner dialog would typically go like this: “If you don’t sleep, how will you put in the training you need to get on the podium and win prize money at the races?” “You have bypassed looking for a ‘real’ full-time job to take on this sport full time.” “You have all of these people in your life supporting you. What if you don’t do well?” “You’re not sleeping. That means tomorrow’s going to be a training day down the tubes.” She was relentless. So relentless that I gave up my earned spot for the 1995 Pan American Games in Argentina.

I figured if I couldn’t sleep, I might as well get up and do something. Sometimes I would leave Sveta in the bedroom and bake bread at 1 a.m. Other times, I would clean things. Not the house, but much more important things … like bike components. Occasionally, I would resign to starting my long run well before the sun came up (no worries about traffic). I can honestly say that year of having Sveta in my life was a miserable. She made me go a little cray-cray.

You never know what’s going to hit you from year to year. You can have periods in life when you are just sailing through with a tailwind, and other times when you are blindsided by a challenge and taken to the ground. My advice is to first get on your hands and knees. Then start to think specifically about what you need to do to stand up again. It’s called problem solving. And here's how I solved mine. I couldn’t file a restraining order against Sveta, so I ended up seeking the help of a sports psychologist. He was instrumental in helping me break the snowballing patterns of worry by teaching imagery techniques that allowed me to let go of the negative dialog. Basically, when Sveta entered my head, I would imagine her floating away, down the river …. or better yet on hard-core rapids. He also suggested that I take time every day to write down and focus on all the things in my life and in my training that were going well.

The third hit to Sveta came from me alone. A television in the bedroom did wonders in overtaking her voice and allowing someone else to talk me to sleep. I have read the studies regarding the negative effects of falling asleep to the television. Apparently, the screen emits a type of blue light that triggers the brain to stop producing our natural sleep hormone. In my case however, I go into the most wonderful deep state of REM you can imagine. To this day, even without worries in my head, I still enjoy being “talked to sleep” by a television show (specifically, Forensic Files).

My year-long soiree with Sveta is long gone. In the bigger picture of my life, it seems so trivial now. Worse things can happen. That being said, I still occasionally reflect on that time. I was unraveling, and I didn’t like it. I had to get off the ground onto my hands and knees and problem solve. What came out of that process were tools I still use to this day in all aspects of my life, and with the athletes that I coach. My advice to anyone who has experienced periods of major doubt is to:

1. Be mindful of the tone of your inner and outer dialog with yourself and with others. Specifically, be aware of your word choices. They will reflect in your actions and the actions of others.
2. Be mindful of the negative thoughts that can creep into your head. If they do, let them go IMMEDIATELY and focus on a something that produces a feeling of gratitude. Remind yourself of what is going well in your life.
3. Choose words that foster empowerment, such as “joyful,” “excited,” “enthusiastic” or “passionate” instead of words or phrases that promote feelings of guilt or disappointment (“I’m horrible,” “this is disastrous”).

Several months ago, I spilled coffee on myself, stepped in dog doo (in my bare feet, people!) and walked into the bed post in a very short amount of time. I could have gone down the road of assuming that day was surely going to continue to be a disaster. But I reminded myself that I am healthy, safe and loved. Life was pretty good … and even better once I rinsed off my foot.

Martha Grinnell Martha Grinnell is a certified USAT Coach who has been coaching athletes since 1992. She holds an MS in Exercise and Sport Studies from Smith College and a BS in Health and Fitness from Springfield College. She raced triathlon professionally for 8 years, and is the founder of MG Health and Multi-Sport Coaching Services.