A tale of two migraines.

best of the blog mental skills Jul 30, 2019
Photo Ruth Nielsen

Once upon a time my beloved “Novice A” dog, Karma, got invited to the AKC Agility Invitational the same year we also finished third in the inaugural AKC Rally National Championship – we were having quite the year! Karma was running well, feeling well and we were continuing to really gel as a team. I started planning for the December event in September. Wheeeee!!

I knew Karma would have a challenge with the chaos of the event – it’s a massive arena with breed, rally, obedience, agility and dock diving all going on more or less under one roof. There’s a basic footprint for your crate and it’s often too hot to crate in the car – something Karma preferred and needed to fully settle and rest. The crating for agility is also a long walk from the car so we would have to navigate crowds, vendors and other dogs to get to our base for the weekend. For this dog, it could be a challenge.

Reach out for support

So in my preparation, I reached out to our trusted communicator and I went though the whole scenario and described as much to him as I could having attended to cheer on friends in previous years. I also told him how proud I was of him, that he deserved to be there and we would have fun. He said he understood and was ready.

In November I then met with a sports psychologist who primarily worked with hunter/jumper (horse) riders. Over several sessions I described the event, what it took to get there as well as what would be expected. I remember telling the guy in the first session, “I’ve invested a lot of time, energy and money to go to this event and I want to be able to perform at my best. The dog is fine, I don’t want to get in our way.”

I’m sure I talked a million miles per hour (because I do) in an attempt to lay out the whole scenario while still getting usable feedback within our 50 minutes. I remember that in that first session he told me that I needed to learn how to control my energy and then asked me if I meditated.

“I do. I mean, not as much as I should but, yeah.” He was astute enough not to take my word for it. Instead he took me through a guided meditation which felt super awkward in the setting of his office but I did it. My homework: meditation.

This would be a theme leading up to the Invitational. It wasn’t that I disagreed – not at all – it was just that (back then) I didn’t see the direct line between a CONSISTENT meditation practice and doing well in Orlando.

Orlando or bust

Our practice run on Friday went well. I think we had a bar? Regardless it didn’t phase me. Karma was handling the environment exceptionally well – even seemed to be feeding off of it – and we were settling in. I had friends supporting me, two of whom traveled just to cheer me on (okay, probably also to shop!) and we were good.

Saturday began with our Standard run. I was about 10 dogs out, going through our normal warm-up rituals when I started to loose the vision on my right. This is my most common migraine “aura,” or that physical sign I get before the big event. If you get migraines, you get it. If you don’t, suffice to say that, for me, this physical sign can be panic-inducing because I know what’s coming. 

I needed a Coke (one of my preemptive steps along with one Advil and one Tylenol Sinus in case this helps anyone) but I was in a Pepsi property. Five dogs out. Three dogs out. Karma was no doubt sensing his partner was not fully present or coherent or physically able and he was right on all accounts. 

Whether you’ve run agility or not, I’m sure you can easily imagine how important having full vision is to seeing the obstacles and executing a pattern. We had an off-course and a refusal and maybe a bar? Truthfully I’ve blocked the details and have NEVER watched the video. Was it the worst run of my life? Nope. But I was devastated because I knew that I had caused this. I knew I was the weak link in our team and basically I couldn’t hold my sh*t together.

Bouncing back

My friends said all the perfect things and I was able to go back to the room and attempt a nap before our second run that day. Much better, but I know we had one fault. I knew I had not done a good job of controlling my energy (or what I now call “managing the dial”) and I was beating myself up. Sunday was a new day after protein, hydration and sleep and I felt better. Plus the pressure was off, right?

I managed to qualify in our Jumpers run that day and felt redeemed. Karma and I did deserve to be there and we could run these courses like the team I knew we could be. (That video I have rewatched.) It was a long ride home for me – alone replaying my mistake and vowing to fix it. Yes, my sports psychologist was right: I had to learn to manage my energy.

Ohdeargod not again

Fast forward to the Rally National in March at Purina. I had two dogs entered in the Championship classes which meant four runs each. And having done well with Karma the year before (and since for reasons I could never explain that dog LOVED Rally), I felt good about what to expect and that we could perform. Same pep talk about the chaotic environment; relieved I could let the dogs settle in the car; I was feeling good.

Karma was the first of my two dogs for each of the runs. I walked the course, stuck to my rituals and routines and, you guessed it, felt a migraine coming on as the number of dogs in front of us ticked down. I tried breathing techniques and talking myself out of it, but the energetic-damage was done. We  walked into the ring as half of a team with Karma looking at me as if to say, “WTF, Mom. Pretend like you’ve been here before. Sheesh.”

I still had to run Indie (in that same ridiculous state) before I could get to my “emergency Coke,” Advil and Tylenol Sinus (yes, I had learned a little). I was able to stem the migraine but again, the “damage” was done: our mid-90s scores would keep us out of contention so matter how we did the rest of the day.

Since that inaugural year, the Rally National Championship has only gotten more and more competitive. It’s pretty “normal” now for the top 20 dogs to all have 400s and be separated by time. I didn’t know that until the end of the day, but we did manage to finish with a 100 of our own plus some 99s. I had recovered WAY better than in Orlando, but I was still so mad at myself.

The moral of the story

For me, being pi$$ed at myself is a fine motivator. The lesson of controlling my energy was now imbedded and I’m happy to say I’ve not given myself a migraine again and I’ve long stopped traveling with an “emergency Coke.” Confidence, preparedness, rituals and yes, meditation, are all pieces of how I prepare now and with each positive experience, the painful memories are supplanted. I’m still improving, still learning, still growing.

Oh, I still put a LOT of pressure on myself at times, but it’s different. When Indie ran at the Invitational it was marvelous. Same goes for Westminster. Same goes for this past year at our Specialty when it was her retirement day (though I told no one) and we went four-for-four. Oh, I still f*ck up too! Don’t think I don’t!! But my recovery and my mindset are totally different. It’s all a process and a journey I’m still on!

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