Dr. Sarah Torok-Gerard Takes on Ultra-Goals

November 19, 2013

Dr. Sarah Torok-Gerard, associate professor of psychology and chair of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, never consider herself an athlete – until recent years.

Torok-Gerard, who recently conducted sabbatical research on self-regulation and athletic motivation, wanted to literally “walk the walk” during her sabbatical by taking on a large goal that would test her levels of self regulation and intrinsic motivation. While she conducted an 86-item survey about frequency, duration and nature of training of running, she was simultaneously conducting her own personal research as well. She began training in the fall of 2011 when she initially applied for sabbatical. Though she knew how to run, her trainer encouraged her to start from square one to better avoid injury. She began with walks on the treadmill and weighted exercises with kettle bells and progressed to interval training and cross training.

During that time, Torok-Gerard also built her endurance for distance running, deciding to take on the Buckeye Trail 50k in the summer of 2013. Previously, her longest distance was 13.1 miles so she found a local marathon and started training. However, while she had achieved relative success in the training leading up to the 50k (31 miles), there was no guarantee her target race would go smoothly. In fact, heavy rainfall the week before the 50k meant muddy trails – and major challenges.

“During the race, I wanted to give up but I couldn’t,” she said. “It was an out and back course, so I had to finish in order to get back to my car. Going into the race, I was apprehensive. Running technical trail on dirt is one thing. Running it on mud is another.”

In the middle leg of the race, on a particularly challenging part of the course, Torok-Gerard found herself all alone and the negative self-talk settled in, destroying her last remaining energy and motivation. She had resigned herself to giving up when her trainer showed up. She had seven miles left to go, and he paced her to finish the race.

“His surprise appearance literally saved my race,” Torok-Gerard said. “Once I saw him, I was reenergized and was able to push through to the finish.”

Torok-Gerard noted that her experiences with distance running have brought the concepts of self-regulation, intrinsic motivation and grit to life for her.

“I learned that I am mentally and physically stronger than I ever previously thought, and that I can use my experiences in running to help me get through other tough life challenges,” she said.

During her sabbatical, Torok-Gerard collected 207 surveys and conducted 51 follow-up interviews.

“What I have found thus far is that there are definite connections between age and levels of self regulation for sport and academic/professional domains,” she said. “In short, older participants were less likely to be engaging in sport for the sake of boosting their ego or earning some extrinsic recognition. Rather they were more intrinsically motivated to run, even when they fell short of their distance or time goals.”

Of those interviewed, 61% indicated that they often used their successes in an athletic domain to help them through other life challenges (personal, academic or professional setbacks) and 18% use running to mitigate life stressors.

Torok-Gerard also uses her research and personal experiences in the classroom, and has developed a First Year Seminar course, “Ultra-Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things,” which explores the stories of people who sacrifice their time, energy, money and bodies to achieve incredible feats. Examples discussed in class include athletes and people in business, education, philanthropy and the arts. Over the course of the semester, students are introduced to these people and explore the theories that attempt to explain what motivates them, what regulates their behaviors during training and whether they may apply the discipline in one domain to other aspects of their daily lives. The class also looks at the role of failure in their performances and discuss how they can learn and benefit from their own successes and failures in everyday life.

Students in the course are asked to step outside of their comfort zones by setting an “ultra” goal of their choice. Goals can range from athletic to academic to professional. Students engage in goal setting strategies to reach their goals and present their projects at the end of the class. In addition, as a class, students step outside of their comfort zones by participating in field trips to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park for a three-mile trail run and Kendall Cliffs Indoor Climbing Center for an indoor rock climbing experience.

In September, Torok-Gerard completed another major milestone – participating in the North Coast 24 in Cleveland for the second time, running 50.4 miles in 16 hours and 45 minutes.

“The most difficult part of the event didn’t come until the last seven miles (just like with the BT50K),” she said. “I had set my mind on completing the full 50 miles, but my body and mind were starting to go. My diaphragm was starting to seize up and I kept getting pretty bad side stitches and was also getting nauseous pretty frequently.”

After 44 miles, Torok-Gerard made her way to the medical tent, where a trainer helped get her moving again. Though finishing the race seemed to take forever, she eventually sprinted over the mat to finish.

“I always learn a lot about myself in each race I complete,” Torok-Gerard said. “I’ve run enough races to know that it really is true what they say about mind over matter.”

Torok-Gerard will once again put her mental and physical abilities to the test in April when she participates in the Outrun 24 in Kirkland, OH. Her goal is to complete a 100K (62.1 miles).


Sarah Torok

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