Provision #458: Mucked Up Moments

Laser Provision

Among runners, DNF is perhaps the most dreaded of acronyms: Did Not Finish. Last Saturday I ran but did not finish the Bull Run Run, a 50-mile race in northern Virginia. Instead of leaving me devastated, however, the miserable conditions left me with a new acronym for DNF: Discovered New Frameworks. They were, in fact, the frameworks we coaches use all the time when we deal with clients who are facing their own mucked up moments in life and work. If you feel stuck between a rock and hard place, read on. This Provision is for you.

LifeTrek Provision


Bob: It could not be more ironic that we decided to talk about mucked up moments for this particular week. The date was set long ago as part of our series on coaching moments. Not every coaching moment is a spectacular sensation; over the course of a coaching relationship there are many moments of real consternation and confusion as clients seek to make their way in the world. That’s when masterful coaching can be of great assistance. To be in the muck with a wise and nonjudgmental partner is a source of true comfort, strength, and advancement.

I should know, after what I went through last Saturday. Those of you who read my saga from the Shamrock Marathon Click, know that I have been training for my first 50-mile race, the 14th running of the Bull Run Run in northern Virginia. After running 40 miles quite comfortably on March 18, 2006, I figured I would not have much problem going ten miles further three weeks later. Au contraire! The day turned out to be a truly mucked up moment.

And I mean that quite literally. As with most ultramarathons, this race was run on dirt trails rather than on paved roads. The nightmare began at the carbo-loading dinner and pre-race gathering, 12 hours before the race. That’s when we heard the first crack of thunder. It rained throughout the night and the temperature started dropping. By 6:30 in the morning, when the race started, the dirt trails had turned into mud trails. As a result, 36 of those registered for the race didn’t even bother start.

Thirteen hours later, the temperature had dropped 20 degrees Fahrenheit (from 60 to 40 degrees, or, in Celsius, from 15.5 to 4.4 degrees) and another 59 people had either given up or been escorted off the course. My friend, Jim, and I were among those who did not make the time cut at the 28-mile checkpoint, which was just as well since we were both uncomfortable and slowing down fast at that point. We salute the 281 people who managed to finish. They had more energy, fitness, and determination than we had on that particular day.

There’s no way Jim and I could have finished between the weather and the course conditions. Although we were never more than a few hundred feet above sea level, the net elevation of the course included 7,000 to 8,000 feet of uphill running. That’s because we were continually running up and down the ravines of the Bull Run-Occoquan stream valley. On a normal day, that would have been challenging enough. On this day, the rain turned those dirt trails into muddy messes. They were slick and dangerous, as switchbacks, leaves, roots, puddles, and creeks made every step an opportunity to slip and fall.

“We are really in the muck,” I thought to myself, with the growing recognition that finishing within the 13-hour time limit was fast becoming an impossibility. The conditions were so bad they were comical. Never before had the race seen such bad weather. As the Website later reported, “The 14th Bull Run Run can be described by one word • mud. The 340 starters faced the toughest weather conditions the event has seen. There were 281 finishers, which was 10 fewer than last year even though 19 more runners had started.”

It’s hard for words or pictures to capture the conditions. To view photos and read accounts, Click Here. To read about how the same weather led to the death of the nearby Wilson Bridge eagle chicks, Click Here. To see a picture of Jim and me around mile 10, before things got really bad,Click Here. In addition to the mud in our photo, you’ll notice the beautiful Blue Bells on either side of the trail. I’m afraid the entourage of runners trampled a lot of vegetation in our attempts to get footings on solid ground.

Given that finishing was not in the cards for me, I decided to enjoy the muck as best I could. To do so, I had to focus my attention in different directions. Instead of striving to finish the race, I strove to accomplish other objectives which were equally valuable, relevant, interesting, and important. I hope you will find my shifts to be both relevant and helpful the next time you are stuck in the muck, whether literally or figuratively.

Balance. Although Jim questioned whether this meant I was holding something back during the race, I am proud to say that I never fell once during those 28 miles. Now that’s no small accomplishment. All day long I could hear the groans and expletives of those who wiped out on the muddy trail. But I was spared that fate, in part because I was paying attention to balance. That’s a critical variable when it comes to running under any conditions, let alone to running on muddy trails. By focusing on a critical variable in the muck, rather than on the goal of getting out of the muck, I was able to make my way through the muck.

Rhythm. If there’s one thing that muck interferes with it’s our sense of rhythm. There’s no way to get into a steady groove, since every twist and turn, every hill and valley, poses a new and different challenge. Fast, slow, slip, slide, catch, release, left, right, over, under, hop, jump • there was always something to contend with during the Bull Run Run. Given that fact, I set out to make my own rhythms. I would, for example, pay attention to my breathing. At least that could be rhythmic even if my strides were not. I also pulled out my MP3 player and headphones, after about 18 miles, to catch the rhythm of my favorite music. That made a surprising and delightful difference. It was important to find rhythms in the muck in order to keep going.

Energy. Muck not only interferes with our sense of rhythm, it also saps our energy. As the day went on and our shoes filled up with mud, it became harder and harder to take those running strides. We were feeling the effects of the extra weight. At one point we changed into clean, dry shoes which felt fantastic for about five minutes. Then they went back to being heavy, wet, and muddy. There was no way around that, but I did use visualizations and affirmations to lighten the load. I imagined my shoes as being picked up by an invisible hand and I found myself repeating the refrain, “I can scud across the mud.” I also found myself paying careful attention to the terrain, in order to conserve energy as much as possible.

Comfort. Around mile 23, I made the mistake of failing to put on warmer clothes. That not only drained my energy over the next five miles, as I shivered to stay warm against the dropping temperature, it was also downright uncomfortable. I became aware of my arms tingling in the cold. Eventually, when I put on a pair of gloves, things got a little better. Comfort is important when you find yourself in the muck. By definition, muck is uncomfortable. It slows us down, consumes our energy, and messes with our sense of self. Under such circumstances, don’t be afraid to seek comfort. That comfort is important to getting through.

Gratitude. We wrote last week about celebration moments, which can well be any moment we choose. There is always something to celebrate, if we can just find the right perspective. That was not hard on the trail last Saturday. I was grateful to be running with a friend for much of the race. I was grateful for the stories we had to share with each other. I was grateful for the beauty of the flowers. I was grateful for the volunteers and the aid stations on the course. I was even grateful for the rain. Virginia has had very little rain since the start of the year, leading to brush fires and water alerts. Keeping that in mind made it easy to be grateful for the rain. I thought of my seedlings back home, hoping they too were in the rain.

Conversation. For most of the race, Jim and I were running together. That made it possible for us to engage in conversation. Jim suggested that we use the miles to trigger stories from our life experience. At the five-mile mark, for example, we talked about what was happening when we were five years old. By the ten-mile mark, we talked about our memories from being ten years old. Given the conditions, those conversations were great diversions from the muck. Serving as bridges between past, present, and future, those stories enhanced our experience in the muck.

By focusing on and striving to optimize these six ingredients to our experience (balance, rhythm, energy, comfort, gratitude, and conversation), I was able to stay in the muck and to keep on going for more than seven hours. To say there is no disappointment in having failed to finish would be disingenuous. As the race organizers removed my bib number, I felt denuded of a memento that has come home with me from every other racing experience. That was, you might say, the moment of truth. I was finished.

But finishing before the finish did not generate a big ego wound. On the contrary, there was a sense of satisfaction at having tried to run the race at all, at having gotten as far as I did, at knowing it was time to stop when they told me to stop, and at having made the most of this mucked up moment. “Older and wiser” were the words that came to mind as I was pulling off the course.

This experience reflects the coach approach to mucked up moments. We don’t try to rush our clients through those moments, as though they have nothing to offer. Instead, we share those moments with our clients in order to glean as much truth and light from them as possible. Mucked up moments are valuable moments! I remember one entrepreneur who implemented a variety of systems designed to make his business more successful. But none of them worked.

“What’s the common factor, here?” I asked on a day when he was feeling particularly mired in despondence and depression. “Me,” came the immediate reply. “I have been involved with each and every one of these initiatives. Perhaps that’s why none of them worked.” Talk about a mucked up moment! I could, of course, have rushed in and said things to make him feel better. But I did not do that. Instead, I acknowledged my client’s insight and I agreed to stay with him in the muck, through the process of transformation.

“Guess what?” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn. “When it comes right down to it, wherever you go, there you are. Whatever you wind up doing, that’s what you’ve wound up doing. Whatever you are thinking about right now, that’s what’s on your mind. Whatever has happened to you, it has already happened. The important question is, how are you going to handle it? In other words, ‘Now what?'”

That is the best response we can give to a mucked up moment. The moment is what it is. The weather, the course, and the systems are what they are. The real question is, “How are we going to be with ourselves and with others in this moment? Now what?” I got through my mucked up moment by paying attention to balance, rhythm, energy, comfort, gratitude, and conversation. My client got through his moment by paying attention to many of those same dynamics in his communication and leadership styles. He, too, learned how to shift his attention to other objectives and variables in order to get through the muck and to be more successful over time.

Given that life comes with a lot of muck, it behooves us to make the most of those moments. Coaches can be incredible resources on the journey, particularly if they have successfully and gracefully gone through a few mucked up moments of their own. Coaches can assist us to discover new frameworks in the muck.

Erika. I often see clients who get stuck in the muck of their own perspectives or beliefs. We all form beliefs about situations, or people, or meanings, and then conclude that those beliefs are, in fact,”true.” The truth is, those beliefs are only our perspectives, how we see the world, based on our experiences and circumstances. Fortunately, when our perspectives change, so does our world.

In conversation with a client, being stuck usually shows up in absolutes. Rules are presented as being unbreakable, nonnegotiable and unforgiving. “I could never be happy living in this town,” “I have to stay in this career field,” “That dream isn’t possible for me, ” or “I can’t ask for help,” are examples of phrases I’ve heard from clients stuck in the muck. They feel bound by these rules, often without even noticing them. As a result, they lose their sense of choice.

One approach I’ve taken to addressing this is to coach clients through a simple, yet dynamic, exercise. First, we list all of the rules • getting them down on paper and methodically recording them. We honor them and acknowledge them with great ceremony. Then, for each rule, the client lists 10 ways in which the rule is actually false or ridiculous nonsense. Lastly, through the course of conversation, we negotiate a rules’ revision, rewriting the rules based on any insights gained in the process of disproving the rules. 

Sometimes this process leads to radical eliminations of rules. More often, it leads to changes in thought which allow for more options.  One client, who believed that she was better off without a romantic relationship, was dramatically transformed once the rule was acknowledged and challenged. Through the process of rule revision, it became more of a vision and a declaration of hope, rather than a limiting boundary. Her new rule requires that, “A romantic relationship must have integrity and a meeting of the minds. It will manifest parallels in quality attributes such as values, intellectual capacity, spirit, energy and honor.”

We never could have gotten to that point had we moved too quickly through the muck. The old rules had to be acknowledged and celebrated, since they were the rules that had gotten my client through to the present moment. As difficult as it was, the present moment was also filled with possibility. From that vantage point, there was much to celebrate even though there was much to contend with. Coaches learn how to hold both of those truths at the same time in order generate movement and growth for our clients.

Christina. I once had a client who showed up to our session in tears. She expressed that she was completely and totally stuck, trapped with no escape, and that she just couldn’t take it anymore. She saw no way out of a job that was abusing her emotionally. She couldn’t walk away from the income and was close to being eligible for full retirement benefits.

I asked her to tell me how she was feeling in complete detail at that very moment. She reported feeling as if a baseball had hit her in the stomach, tension in her neck and shoulders, and a killer headache. Her energy was low. Her outlook on life was ailing. Her future was dim. 

Was she feeling stuck? You bet! 
Was she really and truly physically stuck in that job? No way! 
Was her perspective one of, “I have no options but to be stuck here.”? Absolutely!

Through the magic of coaching we partnered together to create a safe space where she could spend time and use her imagination. We considered options, saying were doing it, “Just for fun.” Had I asked her to get creative and give thought to real options that might be available to her, I would have tightened the grip her gremlin had on her already. It would have been counterproductive to push her out of the muck too soon.

But just for fun, in an anything-goes world without boundaries, limitations, or retirement requirements, I asked her to articulate some of the attributes of her dream job. Allowing no self editing or critiquing of those attributes, she verbalized some beautiful professional ambitions in an attractive environment. 

Over time, as we played with this more, my client began to realize once again that she is at choice. This is her life and it’s up to her to live it fully. By finding and creating more of what she was looking for in her current position, she could be in the muck in a new way and still qualify for those retirement benefits. By choosing to come from a different perspective, by accepting that she is “free to do the work she loves,” her frame of mind became a powerful too for getting exactly what she was looking for. 

Coaching Inquiries: Have you ever been in a mucked up moment? Are you in one now? What can you learn from those moments? What can you focus on that will assist you to get through those moments with style and grace? Who could be your conversation partner? How could you find balance, rhythm, energy, comfort, and gratitude in the muck?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..


I just want to let you know how much I enjoy LifeTrek Provisions. I am a grandmother, mother, and I am also retired. I still work 2 days a week as an Esthetician. I have a good background in spiritual healing work and I am there for my children and friends. It is so cool to read your accomplishments and I love the questions that you put at the end of your articles. Thanks!


Your comments on Kitchen Encounters are right on target. When you have a fish tank I understand that the fish will grow to a certain size based on the size of the aquarium. Conclusion: the larger the kitchen the larger the people. 


I saw Dewitt Jones, who narrates “Celebrate What’s Right With The World,” at a National Speakers Association Convention and he was wonderful. Just as you described. I also smiled because I see both a chiropractor and massage therapist regularly. We talk about healing hands all the time. This weekend, I went for some acupuncture • we discussed the same thing you described. I enjoyed reading your comments. Thanks.


Thanks for your kind comments about my article in the Washington Post about “inner-outer” life balance, which I came across while surfing the web the other day. I see from your website you share many of the same perspectives, around wellness and wholeness, regarding human development in life and work. Best wishes, Doug LaBier, Ph.D., Director, Center for Adult Development, http://www.adultdev.org.  



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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