When I was training for the Ironman (no, I’m not quite ready to stop talking about this yet), I was told the same thing over and over again. The race is not as much physical as it is mental. What the hell? Then why am I putting in all these miles on the bike? I might as well go meditate and eat donuts.
I had heard this thing about being mentally strong time and time again throughout marathon training in the past. I tried to figure out what “being mentally strong” even meant. In the back of my mind, I had no clue how to prepare mentally. Tell me I have to train 16 hours a week and what my workouts are and I’ll kick ass. But, ask me to prepare mentally and…well, there is no training plan for that.
Soon enough I realized what this all meant. Do your training, get your fitness where it needs to be, but be sure to train your mind as much as your body. It is absolutely true that your physical body will want to give out before your mind.
Being mentally strong is different for everyone, so I can only tell you what worked for me. One thing to note is that sometimes the best course of action in a race or in training is to stop due to injury. It is not my belief that one should push through injury at the expense of one’s health. Sometimes it takes a huge amount of mental strength to know when to say when and to let your body rest due to injury.
Prior to the Ironman, I wasn’t sure if I had done enough mental preparation. But, as the day unfolded, my confidence in finishing never waned. No matter what happened, my optimism did not retreat. Not when 2,500 people almost drowned me in the choppy ocean. Not when I was over six hours into the race and knew I was likely not even half way done. Not when I wanted to puke my guts out on the aid station volunteer at mile 14 of the marathon. So, what worked?
1. Know why: When you have a big goal for yourself, it’s important to understand why you really want to meet that goal. At some point, you will want to quit, and more than ever you will need to remember why you wanted to do this in the first place. For me, it was simple - I wanted to meet the goal because it was a long time dream and because I said I would do it. My “why” was about determination and self discipline. Something I wanted to prove to myself.
2. Visualize: Prior to race day I started visualizing. I’d never really done this before – visualize what? Me not shitting my pants? The finish line? Ryan Gosling? I decided to visualize how I might feel when things got tough. Since I hadn’t been on the course at all, I couldn’t picture my environment. Instead, I put myself in the water and imagined feeling panicked and scared. I talked myself out of it. I put myself on the bike at mile 80 and imagined feeling tired and defeated. I talked myself out of it. I put myself at mile 17 of the run when I knew every cell of my being would want to stop. I talked myself out of it. On race day when things got tough, I felt better equipped to pull myself out of the funk.
3. Stay in the present: This was something told to me countless times by Coach Sharpie and PT Bob. Do not think of the race as one big long crazy day. When you are swimming, you are out for a swim. Don’t think about the millions of hours and miles ahead of you. During the Ironman, I did not wear a Garmin. I wore my trusty old Timex watch. I looked at it about 3 times during the race. I was not a slave to my time – I was going based on feel and exertion level. This helped me stay in the moment and in touch with my body.
4. Have a mantra. We’ve heard this one a million times, but for good reason. It works. A mantra does not have to be anything fancy, the simpler the better. A mantra is something you can pull out of your ass when the going gets tough (or before then if you like). I did not have a mantra for Ironman day (crazy, I know). On the morning of the race we drove by a church with a sign that spoke to me and voila! mantra for the day:
(By the way, I just learned that there is a Church Sign Generator online! The Internet never fails to impress).
I also love the idea of picking a word from each column below and making it your mantra (i.e, Run Light, Embrace Power):
5. Do not assume it’s going to get worse: This is probably the best advice I received, and it does not just apply to racing. When things go bad or wrong, it’s human nature to think the worst, to get caught in the downward spiral of it all. Training (and racing) taught me that a lot of bad crap can happen, but it does not always go from bad to worse. In fact, things often improve if you give them time.
6. Wear something inspiring. A dear friend even gave me a necklace with a charm of the lotus flower on it to wear during the race. The flower symbolizes luck and rising above challenge. I also wore the Believe bracelet that my daughter and I had wore for the month leading up to the race. When I needed a pick me up, I fondled one or the other, or both. I like fondling.
Look! It fits perfectly into my weird throat hole.
7. Remain calm. No freaking out. Let’s say something goes wrong during your race (It will, I promise. and it won’t be what you expected). Your period starts that morning, you get a flat tire, you mess your pants, you crash on your bike, you get put in the penalty box, you throw up, etc. Any one of these things can cause you to panic, to think your time goals are impossible, to lose your confidence. Take a deep breath. Stay present. Know you can handle it. Do not try to make up for lost time because you will hit a wall. Problem solve and move forward.
Do you have a mantra?
What is the toughest race you’ve done, and how did you keep your mind strong?
In a later post I’m going to talk about race day fueling, another aspect that can make or break the success of a race.