Mental Toughness

This year’s training for the Wisconsin Ironman was really … enlightening. Not only was IMWI the first triathlon I ever signed up for*, but it was my first real just-get-over-it-already experience. Let me explain.

I spent the winter training for a spring marathon with Ironman’s approach hanging like a banner across the finish line for every day. I’d spend my Tuesday nights at Trainer Tuesdays (TT), where four or five of us sweaty, half naked athletes whirred our wheels on magnetic and wind resistance until communal dinner was ready for consumption or we were too bored to continue. We had a strong contingent of devoted TT riders: Myself, Ian, Adam, and Margot. Every week, Ian or Adam would bring to the room a sort of hour-long sufferfest that we’d hammer through. Adam compiled a variety of music designed specifically around our workouts; it would start slower and mellow, with Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown” and ramp up to remixed Rhianna. I learned quickly that if the music wasn’t right, the workout wouldn’t be either. But, I was lucky and perhaps I took for granted the great group I have to train with in the build season.

At first, I complained at the beginning of practically every workout and eeked through them, bitching about this or suffering about that. I’d do it, but I wouldn’t be happy. Something would happen and I’d get annoyed or upset. My cleat would loosen on my shoe or I couldn’t clip in with my new pedals or I’d say something to Adam and he’s not respond with much. I’d get grumpy and annoyed at the most useless things. I can’t explain it. I kept riding once or twice a week, 1.5hr sessions, and crossed my fingers that we’d be listening to Prodigy in hopes of lifting my mood for that day. Sometimes, after the workout, I’d sit and pout about whatever or whoever and … it was just ridiculous.

About a month before my spring marathon came around, we were able to ride outside a few times and even squeezed in a century ride. I got a little cold a few weeks out, which I thought had wrapped up by race time. I don’t know if it was still lingering, or if I just had a bad day, but my spring marathon was not what I had hoped it would be. It just wasn’t my day. Looking back, I think that my attitude played a role in my performance that day.

I continued to play the give-up card, especially during cycling training, after my spring marathon. I’d get annoyed in runs because I’d feel the “why-are-we-racing” aggravation. I’d go for rides and get frustrated that the other people would be so much faster and more agile than me. I’d pout and express my annoyance that they wouldn’t just ride with me, but in reality it was me being upset that I couldn’t ride with them. I’d ask myself questions like: Why can’t I just keep up? Why won’t they hang back? How are they so much faster than me?

It took me racing my first triathlon (a half iron distance in Minnesota) to realize that it doesn’t matter if anyone else is faster than me in training. It’s how I approach my training and learn to use my training partners to my advantage. Seven or so of us traveled to Minneapolis to do the race, and I was somewhere in the middle of the group getting out of the water. I saw all of the folks I traveled with in transition, and I hustled along so I could make it out of T1 before most of them. The guys that were behind me breezed past me in the first few miles of the bike. In that race, though, I wasn’t worried about what they were doing. I was focusing on myself.

“Race your own race,” I’d tell myself. I’d see other racers hammering past me and I kept myself collected. My head was down, I was focused. I’d sip my nuun, eat a chew, sip some more. As I neared the end of bike course, I started to see people I recognized… folks that had passed me miles ago. As I moved off the bike and out of transition, I started picking off people one by one. And I felt good. Comfortable. Relaxed. And that’s when I saw Adam.

He was walking and he didn’t look comfortable. At all. I was carrying my flask, and I stopped next to him. We didn’t talk much, except to exchange our present feelings about our physical well-being and to offer encouragement to each other. We walked together for a few hundred yards before I handed him my flask. I gave him a kiss and took off running again. I soon caught up with the rest of the gang that had made it to the race together. I kept motoring along, feeling some strange race euphoria, or adrenaline, or something- I don’t know what. After I crossed the finish, I went in search for Adam, and kept watch about 200yds from the finish (after heading to the med tent to clean up the blisters I had developed of course). It was so exhilarating watching him run down the wood-chip path to the finish straightaway. He looked strong and (most of all) excited to finish. I felt excited, as well, to watch him sprint to the finish, and the adrenaline started pumping all over again.

In that first triathlon, I learned the most important thing that just kept being reiterated throughout the rest of my training this summer: What matters in training is how I react to training (and racing) with other people. It’s not always a competition – and even if it is, that doesn’t have to be a negative! I had been getting so wrapped up in gauging how I was doing compared to someone else, that I wasn’t paying attention to what I should be doing for myself. I was using a comparative metric to determine my skill and my strengths (or in this case, my weaknesses), which may have limited me in my ability to challenge myself. Instead of using my training partners to push myself harder and make myself better, I’d give up or get frustrated or let my head get in the way. Now, I’ve accepted that Adam is a much better cyclist than me, and that’s a great thing. I have the best training partner for triathlon, someone that will push me to the next level and encourage me along the way.

*Although IMWI was the first tri I signed up for, it wasn’t the first tri I competed in. I wanted to be prepared, of course! So I did two half ironman triathlons before competing in IMWI.

2 thoughts on “Mental Toughness

  1. What a neat post; I agree that attitude is usually a big part of our performance in a race and in our training. I've found that interacting with others and running with loved ones or family is what makes the experience full and complete BUT I still struggle with my head too! It's kind of a dance for me.

  2. Sometimes I find that the best way to get over the hump when self-doubt rears its ugly head is to just LIE to myself. Daunting hill when lungs are already on fire? Repeat mantra in head of "I love this hill. I love this hill." Before you know it you on the backside of it.

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