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June 20, 2016

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Sometimes Our Students Are Our Best Teachers

Pacific Quest is supporting Mike Sullivan in his 2016 race and triathlon training. In this series of posts, Mike will share insights and perspectives throughout his races and training, and drawing parallels between the mind-body connection and wellness – important themes at Pacific Quest Wilderness Program. In his first two posts, Mike shared his insights before and after the Hilo Marathon. Mike parallels navigating transitions in racing, wilderness therapy, and life in his third post. Today he looks at acceptance, on and off the course.  

By: Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC
Alumni and Family Services Director

I recall a Pacific Quest student highlighting pertinent lessons from the book The Knight in Rusty Armor – “Mike, the most important theme of the book revolves around acceptance. See, right here, it says ‘accept; don’t expect.’ This is a critical message for me at this point in my life.” And later that day, the student painted a rock with the message “Accept; don’t expect,” and placed it carefully as a centerpiece in a garden bed.

The past two months have largely been hallmarked by acceptance, particularly as it applies to triathlon and life. I awoke before the sunrise on Thursday, May 5th, eager to learn my fate related to competing in the 2016 Kona Ironman World Championship. A quick glance at the newspaper revealed that my name was not one of 24 lucky island residents selected through a random lottery system. Although somewhat disappointed, I had practiced the art of keeping my expectations realistic, and not placing too much emotional investment in the outcome of a lottery I had no control over. I sighed, moped around the house for twenty minutes, honored how fortunate I was to race in 2015, and set my sights on other challenging races I had approaching on the 2016 race calendar. Accept and move on.

The Kona Half Ironman, aka “Honu” as it known in the triathlon circuit and amongst locals, is still quite challenging, and satiates any athlete’s desire to compete. The race is exactly half the distance of a full Ironman, and Hawaii boasts one of the most challenging courses in the world. Given that I had raced the “Honu” the previous year, I knew how brutally hot and humid the conditions could be. I got mentally and physically prepared and I tried to keep my expectations in check. I wanted to race very well and finish with the top tier athletes.

70.3coralRace day arrived. While I felt an overarching sense of confidence, I found myself grappling with personal expectations. I have been teetering on an overuse injury. My last several runs and bike rides have been painfully slow. I can barely comment on my swimming, as I have only been to the pool a handful of times this spring, and certainly didn’t show my face around there in the freezing temperatures this past winter. What could I expect of myself in this race? How would my body perform? Ugh… there is that sneaky self doubt sensation arising.

I knew I had my mental skills honed and ready. First things first, I had to put expectations to the side and let go. As the Pacific Quest student said, “Accept, don’t expect.” I acknowledged my lack of training and the injury I am working through. I told myself I was just going to go out and have fun. Second, I acknowledged that the race is largely mental. While being physically fit is important, it is the mental process of remaining calm in the swim, cajoling those positive self-affirmations on the bike, and pushing through the intense adversity in the run. Knowing that I have been honing my mental game throughout my life gave me a sense of confidence that cannot be eroded with a tickling echo of self-doubt.

The race started at Hapuna State Beach, an idyllic white sand and palm tree laden Kohala beach. Everything seemed to go rather smoothly for the swim and bicycle sections of the race. The run is where things intensified. I had to face the personal expectations I had tried not to create. As much I was working to accept and not expect, running is my strongest leg of the race, and I wanted to run the half marathon in under one and a half hours. I battled with the thoughts of my past month of running- my training times were in the tank and far from where I wanted them. The voices of self-doubt and skepticism emerged. I toyed back and forth with it with each stride. I wanted to scream out with frustration.

I then chose to surrender, and fight the negative thinking with acceptance. All I can do is my best, and nothing more at this point. I endured the mental agony of watching my pace slowly creep from 6:40 minute miles to 7:00+ minute miles. I stuck with it. I accepted and pushed. I smiled and gave high fives to children spectating on the sidelines. I passed hundreds of people, moving from 306th place to 75th place overall. My run was 1:32:28, and while not as fast as I would have liked, is competitive within the upper echelon of athletes competing in the race. I crossed the finish line in 5:01:47 and smiled ear to ear, knowing that I channeled my Peak Self throughout every aspect of the race.

The old cliché saying amongst teacher seems applicable here, “Sometimes our students are our best teachers.” I have learned tremendous lessons from the students at Pacific Quest, and the vivid memory of the boy who emphasized acceptance still rings as inspiration.

swimming acceptance

April 19, 2016

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Triathlon transitions – great metaphors for life!

Pacific Quest is supporting Mike Sullivan on his “2016 Road to Kona.” Yes, you heard correctly, Mike is taking another stab at the World Championship Ironman, assuming he is selected to participate through the Hawaii Resident Lottery on May 5, 2016. Mike will share insights and perspectives throughout his 2016 races and training, and drawing parallels between the mind-body connection and wellness – important themes at Pacific Quest.

In his first two posts, Mike shared his insights before and after the Hilo Marathon. With this third installment, Mike parallels navigating transitions in racing, wilderness therapy, and life.  

By Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC
Alumni and Family Services Director

“Ooooh…. Yikes, my body feels so sluggish,” I say to myself as I get off my bicycle and start running. There is that familiar feeling -my feet are heavy, my legs feel tight, and my run pace starts out slow motion. The transition is uncomfortable, as my body begins to reroute blood flow from my cycling muscles into my running muscles. In triathlon training, workouts that combine two sports is a called a “brick.” It is critical to practice brick workouts, as it not only trains the physical body to adapt to shifting from one sport to another, but it also gives the athlete a chance to master transition itself – navigating mental and emotional challenges that are inherent in transition. The lessons of transition mastery in triathlon parallel those in life, and importantly, are equivalent to the transition practice that students at Pacific Quest encounter regularly.

Triathlons consists of racing consecutive swimming, cycling, and running sections, and triathletes refer to the two transitions during a race as T1 and T2. T1 is the point during the race where the athlete exits the swim and transitions onto the bicycle. T2 is where the athlete finishes the bike leg, and transitions into the final stretch of the race, the run. While an athlete may be incredibly skilled at swimming, cycling, and running, the winning athlete will have mastered the transitions as well. They are integral to the race and should not be overlooked. In preparing for the Kona Half Ironman this coming June, I am especially attentive to aspects of T1 and T2, including organization, techniques, and anticipating discomfort. Practicing transitions cannot be overstated.

PQ_transition_1

Transition 1 or “T1”

Similar to what I discussed in terms of preparation for the Hilo Marathon last month, organization is a critical skill to triathlon transition. One should lay out their cycling and running equipment in an organized fashion, being meticulous about the placement of equipment, as each piece has its place in the whole. Also sticking to an orderly routine is a must- this is more efficient as it conserves mental and emotional energy. The more organized and methodical the athlete is, the more smooth the transition is.

Athlete’s are sponges for new skills and must remain open to learning valuable techniques. For instance, in my first triathlon it hadn’t occurred to me to roll my bicycle socks into little donuts. This technique allows the athlete to simply roll the socks onto each foot when you get out of the water. With wet feet, it is much more time consuming and challenging to pull socks over your feet the way you would normally. I lost valuable time and felt frustrated and out of balance trying to pull socks over wet feet. Once I learned the donut technique, my next T1 went more smoothly and I felt more confident and level headed as I entered the cycling section of the race. This is a small example of a much larger lesson- learn techniques to be more successful each time.

Lastly, I will highlight anticipating discomfort. In every “brick” workout, I am getting used to the painful discomfort of shifting gears from one sport to another. This allows me to adapt to the discomfort and creates a higher tolerance. While it is physically grueling to transition, it takes a mental toll on the athlete. The physical and mental are inextricably linked. If the athlete allows the discomfort to permeate his mental and emotional focus, the athlete will suffer, and so will performance.

PQ_transition_2

Transition 2 or “T2”

These transitions, T1 and T2, provide relevant lessons for life. Every person encounters transitions life ranging from small day to day transitions to major life transitions. How do people navigate transitions in life? What skills and metaphors from triathlon are applicable? How do these parallel the transitions that Pacific Quest students practice?

At Pacific Quest, adolescent and young adult students graduate through “stages of growth,” while in the program. They move from stage to stage, and with each successive stage, the students must transition to a new physical camp, with increased responsibilities and challenges. This provides a fantastic medium for internalizing valuable lessons for navigating transition. The students learn important tools related to organization (taking care of their belongings and keeping them orderly), techniques for a successful transition (visualizing obstacles, affirming strengths), and anticipating discomfort. The transitions serve as valuable practice for transitions they will encounter in life, whether it is a simple as some of the daily transitions one encounters (shifting gears between home and school) to larger life transitions (starting at a new school, moving, family shifts).

As the Kona Half Ironman approaches, I look forward to employing these tools in race preparation, and on race day itself. Track me live during the race on June 4th by following the link for the Ironman Tracker through the PEAK Self website. With each race, I am able to review performance, and identify what went well and areas where I can improve. I look forward to following up on this blog post with insights following the race, and highlight important lessons learned!

March 18, 2016

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PQ Staff Spotlight: Mike Sullivan on Mindfulness and Marathon Preparation

Pacific Quest is supporting Mike Sullivan on his “2016 Road to Kona.” Yes, you heard correctly, Mike is taking another stab at the World Championship Ironman, assuming he is selected to participate through the Hawaii Resident Lottery on May 5, 2016. Mike will share insights and perspectives throughout his 2016 races and training, and drawing parallels between the mind-body connection and wellness – important themes at Pacific Quest.

Up first, Mike’s reflections as he prepares for the Hilo Marathon this Sunday:

By Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

Mike Sullivan raceIt turns out that I ran 300 miles during the month of February – something that came as somewhat of a surprise to me. I wasn’t entirely aware that I was putting that kind of mileage on my body during the month. I ran the stats on my computer and learned that my total running time was­­ 40.5 hours, a significant commitment to say it lightly. It begs the question, and I hear this all the time, “What do you think about during all those hours?” The truth is, although I have been asked this question many times, I don’t exactly know how to answer, as it isn’t entirely clear to me.

Mindfulness Training and the Brain

This much is clear though- I have observed my personal thought process and studied the neuroscience of exercise to better understand my experience. I seek to find if my experience may be congruent to others. In fact, my Peak Self project analyzes various athlete’s mental experiences by interviewing them and featuring an “Athlete of the Month” on the Peak Self blog. I have learned that many athletes encounter similar mental phenomena in training.

Here are the top three phenomena I’ve noticed in myself and the mental tools I have employed to maximize the experience:

Mindfulness Training and Perseverance

My mind tends to ruminate on unwanted thoughts or uncomfortable emotions. Without distraction, the mind is left to its own devices to latch onto thoughts or feelings that are left unaddressed, and become a point of focus. One naturally assigns judgment and in my case perseverates, allowing unwanted thoughts to persistently gnaw at me.

Similar to advanced meditation practitioners, learning how to deal with the minds tendency to latch onto negative thoughts is critical, and a necessary step in reaching a higher level of calm and feeling of contentment. In fact, this process of allowing thoughts and feelings to emerge and dealing with them, is a healthy process of mindfulness practice, and supported widely within the therapeutic community. I have enjoyed the process of incorporating mindfulness into running:

Mindfulness Training Tool #1

Tool 1: the practice of acknowledging when certain thoughts appear (or reappear), refrain from assigning judgment (just noticing that the thought is there), and letting it go. Developing this practice has allowed me to find larger moments of calm and content, increasing the spans of attaining a presence in the moment. When one asks me what I think about on those long runs, the reality is that it is an ongoing project, where I continually practice this basic mindfulness technique.

I often find that a wandering mind and “mindless” running leads to sloppier running and less effective workouts. It also leads to dissatisfaction with the experience, as running starts to feel more like a hamster wheel, than actually getting anywhere. For many, the process of becoming present requires more than just acknowledging thoughts and letting them go, it requires one to focus attention on one simple thing (Tool 2). I hone focus on the rhythmic nature of my breath, as well as a mental cycle of checking in repetitively on my running form. This is a cycle starting with my head and working my way down to the bottoms of my feet. I first notice the angle I am holding my head, the tension in my shoulders, how I am holding my abs/core, the rotation within my hips, the size of my strides, and the nuances with my feet (foot strike, roll, etc.). This mindfulness technique engages focus in the experience.

Problem Solving & Mindfulness Training

As the miles add up in any particular workout and I find myself in longer stretches of “being present,” which in turn seems to lead to another important aspect of “what I think about” during all those training hours. The combination of endurance exercise and the mindfulness techniques leads to increased problem solving and clarity in my thinking. I find myself regularly encountering “aha” moments, where I will encounter a novel idea or solve a problem I haven’t otherwise been able to solve. With a clear mind my subconscious is able to make connections that it isn’t otherwise able to.

It seems that the unique chemical environment produced in the brain, catalyzed by exercise and mindfulness, fuels problem solving. According to Bruce Perry, MD, Ph.D., and founder of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT), the higher level operations of the brain (i.e., the neocortex and the limbic system) are only functional when the more primitive parts of the brain are regulated (i.e., the brainstem and diencephalon). Patterned, rhythmic behavior stimulates and soothes the lower parts of the brain (responsible for nervous system functioning), establishing a critical foundation for the more complex aspects of the brain to fire. Running is a perfect medium for problem solving! The nervous system is nurtured from the bottom up, allowing the brain to problem-solve in a more effective manner.

While I utilize endurance athletics to access a higher level of mindfulness and problem solving, others seek out a parallel experience through other activities. Gardening, yoga, walking, painting, writing, and other hobbies serve to find presence in the moment and soothe the nervous system. Through working at Pacific Quest, I’ve recognized the powerful role that gardening can play in regulating the nervous system and problem solving. Tending to a garden requires patterned, rhythmic behavior of tilling the soil, weeding, pruning, and planting. There is also significant exercise-like movement in tromping around with tools, building garden beds, hauling wheelbarrow loads, and stirring the compost. Mindfulness and problem solving opportunities abound!

April 22, 2011

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Ohana members contribute to the blog!

Ohana members contribute to the blog - Pacific Quest: Wilderness Therapy for Teens & Young Adults

Ohana members expressed enthusiasm when we talked about the possibility of them contributing to the PQ blog.  They wanted to share “notes from the field” to be able to educate others more about their experience on the farm.  Below are aspects that the students wish to share from this past week.

“A metaphor that I learned over the last three weeks is composting.  Composting is the process of taking old food scraps and dying weeds and using it to make new soil.  We take our old food scraps and place them in a wooden bin.  The bin is then added to with the dying weeds.  We layer it with about three inches of each until it gets to the top.  We water it and mix it up with a pitchfork weekly.  We then look back at our lives and see what past experiences we can compost.  We write these down and I take what I can from them and then compost the rest.  I use my bad experiences in life as a base that I can learn and take from.”

“This week I have really benefited from doing yoga in the mornings.  Yoga is a nice way for me to center myself and start my day.  It eases my body into being alert and helps to clear my mind after struggling to get up.”

“Something I learned was that if you don’t hold yourself to the highest reachable standard you have to the face the consequences eventually.”

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April 30, 2010

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Wellness lesson

Wellness class in Malama this week focused on the 5 pillars of health how they have evolved for each individual during their journey at PQ.  The lesson emphasized nutrition and the reasoning behind the PQ diet in terms of whole, unprocessed food.  The group discussed the role different nutrients play in the body as well as how to optimize digestion. The lesson also discussed the health benefits of regular exercise, consistent sleep and breathing. Finally, the student’s shared personal examples of the mind/body connection with  the group.  The class ended with chi gong and deep breathing.  This is always a “crowd pleaser” because the students are able to tune in and feel their own chi!

Wellness class in the Ohana camp touched upon nutrition, diet and the mind-body connection. We discussed healthy, organic, sustainable food choices as well as the food industry as a whole. Also discussed were the manifestations of stress on the body, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, the role of stress and stress management techniques. We ended the class with chi gong and deep breathing exercises as well.

The assignments given to each student was

1. write down 3 major stressors in their life, 3 physical, emotional or mental manifestations of their stress and at least 2 ways to relieve stress when they perceive it.

2. Create a recipe for the PQ cookbook including how to prepare with specific healthy ingredients

April 9, 2010

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PQ employee Billy Barnett practices what he preaches

PQ employee Billy Barnett practices what he preaches - Pacific Quest: Wilderness Therapy for Teens & Young AdultsPhoto from the Hawaii Tribune Herald

PQ field staff Billy Barnett made headlines in Hawaii recently for winning the 13th annual Big Island International Marathon.  Check out the article for details- it captures Billy’s humble nature and good spirit.

Billy dedicates every other week of his life to the students at PQ.  As a field staff, he is responsible for the students safety and therapy, as well as teaching them the hard/soft skills they need throughout the program and life.  Billy has a passion for working with adolescents and it shows.

Billy has inspired students in the past to take care of their health and use exercise as a means of releasing tension and maintain well being.  Students engage in daily exercise at PQ as a means of addressing holistic health.  Billy models healthy living in the day to day.  In fact, the day he won the marathon he was on a short break from PQ for the day.  Great determination and modeling!  Nice work Billy!

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November 6, 2009

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Dr. Zimmer’s Wellness Topic on Strong Immune Systems

This week we discussed the pillars of health and how they contribute to strong immune systems. The pillars of health are:

1.The Mind/Body Connection

2. Digestion / Nutrition / Water

3. Sleep

4. Breathing

5. Exercise / Movement

At Pacific Quest all five of these pillars are reinforced daily leading to healthier and happier students.

Stay tuned for a more in depth bloq about these five pillars.

With the arrival of flu season in the northern hemisphere a discussion about the swine flu was sparked.  Receiving the vaccination and proper hygiene are important and seem to be the main focus of the news reports regarding the swine flu. But how about also emphasizing a healthy, robust immune system to lessen your chances of contracting the swine flu and to mute the course of the flu if you happen to catch it.

I asked the students what weakens the immune system and their answers were:

Sugar, Stress,  Poor sleep, Eating junk food, Not exercising, Stuffing your emotions, Smoking,  Alcohol

That’s Correct!

They have learned about the negative effects of these elements over the course of their wellness classes.

I asked them what they are doing here at Pacific Quest on a daily basis to keep their immune systems strong and healthy and they replied:

Exercising every morning, Eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, Talking about our feelings, Sleeping at least 7 hours a night, Breathing fresh air, Drinking a lot of water,  Breathing exercises, Eating garlic, Getting vitamin D from the sun and Not eating all of our favorite junk foods.

A Recipe for Health!

I was very satisfied with their answers because one, they have learned these concepts during their stay here and two, they are engaging in these activities daily- creating healthy immune systems ready to withstand the flu season back on the mainland.

Yours in health,

Dr. Britta Zimmer