Tuesday, 2 April 2013

It's all in the head

  It is obvious that physical fitness is the main component of an Ironman and that is obviously where the major focus of the training goes. However, it is essential to not forget about the mental side. The brain is the most powerful organ when it comes to an Ironman. Chrissie Wellington, four time Ironman champion (the elite I was so desperate to meet at the Triathlon Show) writes, "you wouldn't go into a race without any physical training, so why would you go without any mental?". It is important to train it to make it strong enough to endure such a demanding event. I believe I have a lot of this already as you have to have a certain mindset to want to become an Ironman but I have yet to endure the gruelling day. Everyday athletes, particularly amateur have to have the sheer will power to get out of the door to train.

The unbeaten four time Ironman world champion,
Chrissie Wellington
  During an event you need to have the ability to switch off and try and occupy your thoughts elsewhere, this is particularly essential when the fatigue and pain kicks in. However you also need to be able to stay in control of the job in hand. The only thing that gets me through a hard training session is thinking about crossing the finish line in Austria next year. The pain I am in disappears and I go into another world. It is my subconscious and I am only brought back to normality by an instructor shouting the next move, having to negotiate a roundabout on the bike or try and remember my length count in the pool. Chrissie Wellington wrote in her autobiography, "The mind constantly wanders when you are engaged in repetitive activity for a prolonged period. There have been many times I have been thinking of other things, only to snap out of it and say, 'Wake up! You're in a race here!'. This is natural, but you have to be aware of it and to learn to stay in the moment. If your mind wanders, so does your body. You should constantly be asking yourself questions. Are my arms relaxed? Is my face? Am I working as hard as I can? A I breathing into my belly, or am I stopping in my throat? On the swim, it should be is my hand entering correctly, am I finishing the stroke properly, am I on feet? There should be a regular check/feedback mechanism, whether you're in training or in a race. If you lose that continual self-assessment, before you know it your face and shoulders have tensed up, you're clenching your wrists and you're holding your breath or gasping when you don't need to. It all adds up to a waste of valuable energy and loss of form". This self-evaluation is something I have been doing a lot lately whilst training, especially when cycling. The most commons ones I ask myself is 'does this hurt enough?', 'Are you pushing your heels down and pulling your toes back up?', 'Are you breathing heavy enough?'. The fact that had been doing this and then read it as a method used by none other than one of the greatest woman Ironman there has been was a nice inkling that I was doing something right.

  Chrissie Wellington came into the sport of Ironman late at 30. She had never even realised her potential in triathlon until then as she only stumbled upon the sport by chance. Her natural talent is almost unbelievable. Inevitably when she did impress one of the best and most respected triathlon coaches in the industry, Brett Sutton, the other girls training with him began to get envious. Within nine months of trying the professional triathlete lifestyle she had won her first Ironman as the nobody. Throughout the years she definitely became a somebody and is now probably one of the first names people would relate an Ironman to. She has competed in nine Ironmans, winning every one! She retired in 2012 with no Ironman losses to her name and has been world champion four times. She did what most athletes fail to do, retire at their peak and never be beaten. I would definitely recommend her autobiography.

  Anyway, as an exceptional athlete I have naturally read some of her advice and want to take on some of her methods. As this post is all about the mental side of an Ironman these are about strengthening that important organ, the brain. I shall give three that I believe will be important for me.

  • Improve capacity for boredom
  It goes without saying that an Ironman is a long and enduring race with nothing else to do except swim, pedal or run. The bike leg is by far the most feared for me for the sheer length of time spent on it. My time on the bike leg will hopefully be around 7hours. That is a long time to be in one position doing the same monotonous movement. (I worked out that the distance is from my parents in Hampshire to the caravan in Devon - think that will be a training ride next year!). After that I then have to complete a marathon, which taking in fatigue and any other issues will probably take me around 4-5hours. Inevitably, boredom will kick in. Chrissie wrote, "The best way to improve your capacity for boredom is to endure boredom". The way that she and other athletes were coached to do this was to go to what they called 'The Dungeon Room'. This was basically a basement with nothing in it except for training equipment. Some athletes were told to complete full marathons down there. A way that I do this is on turbo trainer. I definitely do not regret buying my turbo trainer but it is boring and tougher than on a bike outside. Moreover I normally watch a DVD whilst doing it. It would definitely take some serious doing to do even an hour with nothing to look at other than a blank wall, but then it's not supposed to be easy, it is an Ironman after all! At least during an Ironman I would have scenery and some stunning scenery at that in Austria!

  • Find a motivational poem/saying
  Maintaining the motivation to train is tough, my method is to think about eventually crossing the finish line and that is true for any event I take part in. Therefore there also needs to be the motivation to keep you going. Some uplifting words, phrases or poems can become part of that motivational speech you give to yourself. Chrissie Wellington for example uses 'If' by Rudyard Kipling. She even writes some of the sentences on her kit such as her water bottle to give her the extra kick to keep going. Mine would definitely be Edgar Albert Guest, 'It couldn't be done'. The last paragraph is the most significant to me.

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
      But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
      Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
      On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
      That couldn’t be done, and he did it!

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
      At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
      And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
      Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
      That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
      There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
      The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
      Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
      That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

  • Store memories
  When during the Ironman fatigue sets in and the body begins to think about quitting it is the mind that has to over rule this thought. In order to try and make your body be relieved of pain it is essential to be able to turn the pain off by thinking of something else. I need to have a vast amount of good memories banked in my head that I can draw on to get me through the bad times. For me these will include my friends and family, the places we have been together and the laughs we have all had. Even a future memory of crossing the line may come into the mix. It is important for me to have some images in my head that I can think of to keep me going. 

  I know this is all starting to sound dramatic, but the mind plays such an important part in endurance racing, especially Ironman. As you can probably tell completing this Ironman means everything to me. Just reading about reaching the finish brings me to tears, so imagine what I will be like when I finally do it?! (Poor Dan!). This journey is so important. Reading about Chrissie Wellingtons achievements shock and inspire me, I still cannot phantom the speed in which she is going and yet when she crosses the line it all looks so easy. However, her natural talent got her to be a pro and tough training made it her job but the majority do it as a hobby. She takes inspiration from people like me. An Ironman requires a lot of training and to make that commitment as well as having a full time job is hard work. Moreover, if it is tough for an average healthy person then it is the real inspirational stories that put my attempt at an Ironman into perspective. These are the types of heroes I will have going round my head when completing mine. I shall list a few.

Team Hoyt
  I mentioned this amazing and inspirational father and son team on my first post. Their story brings a tear to my eye very time and if you still haven't seen this clip I urge you to!

The inspirational father and son; 'Team Hoyt'
  Rick was born in 1962 to Dick and Judy Hoyt. As a result of oxygen deprivation to Rick's brain at the time of his birth, Rick was diagnosed as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. Dick and Judy were advised to institutionalise Rick because there was no chance of him recovering, and little hope for Rick to live a "normal" life. They refused to believe this and developed their own way of communicating with their son. 
  In the spring of 1977, Rick told his father that he wanted to participate in a 5-mile charity run for a Lacrosse player who had been paralysed in an accident. Far from being a long-distance runner, Dick agreed to push Rick in his wheelchair and they finished all 5 miles, coming in next to last. That night, Rick told his father, "Dad, when I'm running, it feels like I'm not handicapped.
 They have now competed in over 1000 races including marathons, duathlons and triathlons (including 6 Ironman events).
  In a triathlon, Dick will pull Rick in a boat with a bungee cord attached to a vest around his waist and to the front of the boat for the swimming stage. For the biking stage, Rick will ride a special two-seater bicycle, and then Dick will push Rick in his custom made running chair (for the running stage).
  Dick is 72 years old and there is no sign of him stopping.

Jon Blais
  On May 2, 2005, at age 33, Jon Blais was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known motor neurone disease, an incurable and progressive disease in which the nerve cells controlling voluntary muscle movement degenerate and die off. He was permitted to enter the 2005 Ironman in Hawaii, a lifelong dream. As Blais put it, "Finishing the race is huge for me. No one is beating ALS. No one has done anything but walk away and die." His resolve to finish the race was unwavering as he stated, "Even if I have to be rolled across the finish line, I'm finishing." After a total of sixteen and a half hours of agony, just over half an hour before the cut-off, he "log-rolled" across the finish line and is the first person with ALS to finish this race. He died on May 27, 2007. Some international triathletes, including Chrissie Wellington, continue to honor Blais and show their support for the fight against ALS by doing a "Blazeman-Roll" across the Ironman finish line.

Chrissie Wellington doing the 'Blazeman' roll across the finishing line

Scott Rigsby
  This story just astounds me, it is so moving.
  In 1986, aged eighteen, Scott had been riding home from work with friends on the back of a pick-up truck in Georgia, when the truck was hit by an articulated lorry. He was dragged hundreds of yards beneath the trailer. He suffered third degree burns up his back, his right leg was severed and his left was left barely intact. Nearly twenty years of pain and despair followed. After twelve years of operations and treatment, Scott decided to amputate what was left of his left leg. He suffered from depression and prescription drug addiction.

   In 2005 he had an epiphany and set himself the target of becoming an Ironman. In 2007 he did just that coming in a quarter of an hour short of the cut-off time, at 16hr43min. During the marathon he’d had to stop every few miles to empty the blood and sweat from his prosthetics.
  He now has his own foundation and inspires people through public speaking and counselling. Just his story is inspiring enough.

Rudy Garcia Tolson

  Scott Rigbsy is the first double amputee to complete and Ironman, and in 2009 Rudy Garcia Tolson became the first double-above-knee amputee to complete one. By then at twenty-one he had already competed and won medals in the pool at the Paralmpics in Athens at fifteen and then in Beijing. 
  In 2009 he raced in Ironman Hawaii, but missed the 5.30pm cut-off time on the bike by eight minutes. It is no wonder that he struggled to make the cut-off time. I cannot conceive how anyone could ride 112 miles without any hamstrings or quads. In propelling his bike forwards, Rudy can only use his glutes. He can't stand up on the pedals or shift his weight around, which robs him of yet more strategies to ease the pain.
  He tried again in Ironman Arizona six weeks later. 
  Rudy was born with numerous genetic defects, the worst of which were in his legs. He required fifteen operations as a child, before, aged five, deciding to have his legs removed altogether, so that he could get on with living on a pair of prosthetic limbs.
  He is an example to us all. 

  There are many more heroes within Ironman but these few put everything into perspective and prove that the 'impossible' is possible. 

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