Written By: Barry Lewis
“The greatest victories will never be seen because those are the ones where you overcame the doubts inside you.”
Mark Allen, 6 Time Ironman World Champion
At some point during pretty much every endurance event I’ve ever done, there’s come a bad patch. You know it: that part of a race where you’re sore, fatigued, nauseous, where you ask yourself what the hell you were thinking when you signed the waiver and sent in the check. Somehow, you get through it—and the wacky thing is that once you cross the finish line, you become an endorphin-induced amnesiac. Almost immediately, you’ve forgotten all about the bad spell(s). After boring your friends and family with every excruciating detail of your day on the course, you find yourself in a Google frenzy, hunting for the next pain-provoking event. You find yourself actually looking forward to it. Plotting how you might go faster. Or further. Committing to harder training. Better pacing. Tinkering with your nutrition and gear…
As I come back down to Earth after racing in the recent Ironman World Championships, I can’t help but chuckle at myself: in my early days of racing ultramarathons of 50 or 100 miles, I often thought how nice it would be when I got older and could cruise comfortably through an event without suffering because I no longer felt the need to compete. It’s 30 years later and I long ago accepted the fact that such a day will never actually come. Even though I’m slower, less limber, and have to recover far more after hard training sessions and races, I’m as excited as I ever was about racing. There’s something about the continuous process of discovering what I’m capable of and redefining my own limits and boundaries that keeps driving me deep into the hurt locker that I once said I’d love to avoid.
Why is that? What gets me through the inevitable tough patch and keeps me moving forward when just one more step seems like an impossible task. The answer lies in The Mind. Many people ask about training mileage, diet, equipment, and race day nutritional strategies when they get into endurance sports—and while these things are all super important parts of the puzzle, an often overlooked element is ATTITUDE—and how you THINK when the going gets tough.
There’s no greater proving ground in the sport of triathlon than the Big Island of Hawaii, where the Ironman World Championship takes place every fall. Just being there and toeing the line with the best of the best is an incredible honor, and every time I’ve been there, my first reaction has been along the lines of Holy Crap, are these people fit! How did I scam my way into this field? As the tiny town of Kona becomes the center of the Universe for the 2,000 uber triathletes who are racing and their equally athletic supporters, it’s hard not to question one’s fitness level. For the first day or two, I always feel somewhat sluggish and become uncertain about my training, beat myself up for not doing more distance or intensity or stretching or strength….
And then something amazing happens. I get over the jet lag. Acclimate to the heat. Adapt to the taper. I find some alone time. Look inward. Remind myself of all the work I’ve done, the sacrifices I’ve made. I set my attitude right.
Before I know it, I’m treading water and the race is about to begin. I can’t get a smile off my face and I yell to my fellow competitors: Gentlemen, Start your Engines. And have an awesome day!
I’m a mediocre swimmer in the Kona field, and the first 10 minutes are always a chaotic mess. The water is choppier than usual and the constant flailing of 1,300 pairs of arms and legs is impossible to escape, so I control the initial panic by focusing on the pointers I’d received the few days before. Relax your neck and shoulders. Breathe out through your mouth. Reach long and pull short. Don’t over-rotate. After finding my groove, I try to enjoy the beautiful water and find some feet to follow, knowing that drafting will save me energy and help pull me along.
And boom, it’s into transition and onto the bike. Staying controlled amidst the excitement of the crowd is a huge challenge, but I know that consistency is key. I immediately settle into my sustainable pace. The first 30 miles are effortless, but then along come the winds. By the 60-mile turnaround, my legs are in serious pain and I do my best to analyze why. Instead of doubting my preparation and pacing, I REMIND MYSELF of my hard training sessions—and the fact that yes, dammit, they hurt. They prepared me for this!
I go through a mental checklist of the things I know I can control: Calorie and electrolyte intake. Hydration. Maintain a steady effort, but with subtle changes in gearing, cadence, and bike position to spread out the muscular load. Water my head, arms, legs to keep my surface temperature down. Forget about everyone else. Do what you know you can do.
It seems to take forever to get back to transition and there’s no better feeling than seeing it finally come into sight. But there’s nothing worse than the first crippling steps after 112 miles on the bike. I always shake off those initial transitional ouchies by reminding myself that the run is my thing, and by the time I get through transition, I’m usually pulling back on the reigns so I don’t go out too hard. The Hawaiian heat is always in play and it’s just different than ours: there’s something about being so close to the Equator that can drop you like a knock out punch if you don’t play it right.
The first cramps come on at the 4-mile aid station, as I dodge someone who suddenly jumps in front of me to lunge for a sponge. Luckily, I’d been successfully experimenting with a natural product that treats cramps at the nerve, and I knew that downing shot would help me out. The problem was, it wasn’t being handed out until the 10-mile point. Rather than freak out and curse myself into as frenzy, I walk a few steps while shaking things out, crank down some fluids, and THINK about form. I exit the aid station and start running with a shorter stride, controlled breathing, relaxed upper body. I call up some of my mantras. Embrace the Suck. Run the runnable. Don’t crush the bird. One bite at a time.
Some five miles later, I’m taking the biggest climb of the day at a steady pace and after the crest, I’m able to open things up and overtake a bunch of people who’d gone too hard on the up. After the mass start, I have no idea where I’m sitting in my age group, but I do know that the guy I’d had a see-saw battle with two years ago is lurking somewhere behind me—probably very nearby. In the back of my mind is the stinging memory of that race: he got by me on this very same climb, and though he never got out of sight, I could never quite bridge the gap and he took 2nd place to my 3rd.
I take a couple of cramp busters on the way to the turnaround in the infamous Natural Energy Lab, keep my fueling topped up, and suddenly I’m on the final uphill before heading for the finish in town. I high-five a group of partiers, attempt to bust a dance move—and immediately cramp. I’m almost overwhelmed by visions of a death march through the final two miles, but fend them off by owning the idiocy of my twist ‘n shout and VISUALIZING the celebration that awaited a mere 15 minutes ahead. And I thought about the little things that would get me there. Take it one step at a time. Don’t fight the downhill, but don’t overstride. Get the sponge and stay cool. Take a sip of Coke for that last little buzz.
As I rounded the final corner, I felt good but cramp-wary: having a total body spasm in the finishing chute may be one way of getting airtime in the NBC special, but it wasn’t for me. And then, with 400 yards to go, it happens: my nemesis from two years prior pulls alongside. I have a split second to react and weigh the choices: risk the collapse or live with never having given it my absolute all, which to me, was really no choice at all. I went for it and within 10 seconds of accelerating, I heard his footsteps fade into the cheers of the crowd.
I pumped my fists like never before as I crossed the finish line and was ecstatic as I looked for my wife to give her my finisher’s lei. Then I turned back to the finish. The guy I expected to see cross the line wasn’t the guy from two years ago after all. Turns out he didn’t even race.
It was all in my head.