Saturday, 24 August 2013

Every race has an "I can't" moment.

It doesn't seem to matter what distance or type of race I do, the most important skill I've developed has nothing to do with swimming, biking or running. It's the mental fortitude I've developed to push out negative thoughts and just keep going.

These thoughts usually take on a whiny, almost childish tone in my head and it's things like, "this is hard" or "my feet hurt." Finding the motivation to carry on is absolutely critical if you want to have any success.

I realized I had this kind of grit a while ago. In October of 2008 my wife and I signed up for the Devon Half Marathon Turkey Trot (Canadian Thanksgiving is in October). I had no business in this race. I was over 300 lbs and had never run more than about 10km at a time. On top of this, my feet had been giving me some trouble so I did what anyone would do. I got orthotics... and I wore them for the very first time during this half marathon. Seriously. I took a hard piece of foam designed to basically reshape your foot and wore it for the first time while trying to run 21.1km. I realized at about the 5km mark that this was not going to be a pleasant day. My feet were KILLING me.

At about the 10km mark I knew I wasn't going to be able to carry on like this so I took off my shoes, ripped off my race number and I quit. As I started to walk back to the start area barefoot I realized that I was going to have to face everyone and tell them I quit because it was too hard. This did not sit well with me. I don't quit. So I put my shoes on, without orthotics, or insoles of any kind and I started to jog a bit, walk a bit. It became evident soon after that that I was in dead last place. Every time I approached an aid station I could hear, "here he comes" and as I passed they would take everything down and start packing up. Soon the sweep bike and the paramedic golf cart were following me in.

At this point I really started to get embarrassed. It wasn't bad enough that my feet were killing me, well, to be honest my everything hurt. Now I had paramedics circling like vultures waiting for me to collapse so they could cart my carcass off to the finish area. I had a standing offer from them to get on the back of the golf cart and get a ride back and this was SO tempting but I would not be denied. Around 3 hours and 15 minutes after I started I slowly jogged across the line to the accompanying music of the Rocky theme. I was simultaneously overjoyed and thoroughly disgusted with how the race went. The final indignity was that as I was standing with my hands on my knees trying to contemplate what I'd just done, they pulled the plug on the inflatable finish arch and it deflated behind me.

Post race and in pain
I learned a lot of things from this race. Don't try new things for the first time on your longest run to date, like orthotics. Don't wear cotton without some kind of nipple protection or you will regret it, see above photo. When you go to treat the bleeding nipples, don't shave big circles around them in your chest hair so you can put on band-aids or you'll look ridiculous when you go swimming (for real). Finally, and most importantly, I learned that I'm capable of so much more than I ever thought possible and this has served me well over the past five years.

My next major "I can't" moment came at the Lake Chapparal olympic distance triathlon in Calgary, AB. This was my first open water swim and thus my first time swimming in a wetsuit. Now, a triathlon in a swimming pool is one thing, but venturing out into open water is a whole different animal. You can't touch bottom, there's no resting at each end, and a wetsuit really feels like its squeezing the air out of you if you're not used to it.

Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na FAT MAN!

I got about 500m in to the 1500m swim and started to panic. I couldn't breathe. I flipped over onto my back and floated for a bit until I regained my composure. I loosened the velcro around my neck a little and this helped. I got back to work and finished up the swim. Ironically, I probably should have quit this time because I crashed on the first lap of the bike course and took my only DNF of my career to date.

No break in the foot, just pain

Tore up my custom jersey!
Despite not finishing the race I did learn quite a bit from the swim. I still occasionally struggle in open water and I believe it comes from a healthy fear of dieing. When you swim in open water you are surrounded by other swimmers and you get punched, kicked and even swum right over. So on top of just trying to swim you are getting distracted and this adds panic to an already uncomfortable situation. But every time I go through one of these experiences it gets a little bit easier.

A little over a month later I completed an Olympic distance triathlon. This was in Las Vegas and I faced another challenge in that race. Less than 100m after I started I stepped on a stone and turned my ankle. I sat on the ground for a couple of minutes and contemplated whether or not I was going to be able to do this. After testing it out I decided to give it a shot and, although slow, I chipped away at the 10km run and finished in a depressing hour and 35 minutes. But, I finished.

A little bigger than usual.

As the title of this edition suggests, I still have those moments of doubt at every race I do but two major ones stick out in my mind from Ironman. The original Ironman Canada course was in Penticton, BC and it started out with a 60km almost flat section followed by a mountain summit. 1600 feet of elevation over 11km (7ish miles). As I climbed, and climbed and climbed I started thinking WAY ahead about the fact that I had to cycle another 120km and then run a marathon and that I could not do it after this suffering on the bike. Not a chance. But as has always been the case, I put my head down and kept plugging.

Climbing Richter's Pass 2010
One of the nicest things my wife has ever done for me was a small gesture that's become a tradition for my Ironman races. At the time we only had one child and as I laid on the bed the night before Kim came over with Kelland and traced his hand on mine so I would have him with me all day and I used this often for motivation. Now when I travel for a race we put the kids' hands on an over shirt that I wear on the bike.

My boy's hand
When I hit the "run" my calves started cramping so I started out by walking. This walk was awkward and ultimately led to the worst blisters I've experienced in my life. Around kilometer 30 (mile 18)  I felt the one between my first and second toe explode and this felt amazing for the time being. 23When it was all said and done the bottom of my feet were a mess and needed attention at the medical tent. This led to a funny interaction. 99% of the people in the med tent are in rough shape, puking, hallucinating and passing out. Here I am sitting down eating a giant container of Chinese food that my amazing family had waiting for me at the finish line and getting strange looks from the nurses. They finally came over and asked why I was there and with a mouth full of chow mein noodles I mumbled, "my feet hurt." They patched me up and as I went to get up and leave my legs wouldn't work. I actually had to be wheel-chaired to my dad's van to get back to my hotel.

Now my dad was not one to be denied either. This military man was not going to let some fence keep him from getting to his son. So the next thing I know he is pulling up right beside the bike lot with a huge grin on his face. I asked how he got in with a vehicle if all the roads were fenced off. He said, "easy, I moved one." It is these memories of my dad that are special. He would do whatever he needed to for his family.

My most recent "I can't" moment was at Ironman Los Cabos. I mentioned this in my race report but it bears repeating. This was a hard race day. The swim was a little choppy and you had a current working against you. It was hot, windy and the bike was hilly. In fact, they've changed the bike course because they felt it was too hard after the first go 'round. With 40km (24 miles) left in the 180km (112 mile) bike course I had had enough. I was in Mexico alone, I was in pain and I just didn't have anything left in the tank. It was then that I saw my guardian angel Roxi.

Roxi's husband Carlos was racing and I knew the family because I coached their older two boys in high school football. I pulled over on the bike and hugged Roxi. She asked me how I was doing and all I could muster was "not good" and I started crying. Roxi told me to get back out there and that she'd be waiting for me to finish. I needed that and I finished up strong and got out on the run course. I was really hurting, but because of my previous experiences I knew that if I paced myself and just kept moving I would finish with plenty of time before the cut off. I was not happy and with it being a three loop course it is mentally fatiguing because you complete one loop and in your mind you're thinking, "I have to do that two more times?"

Normally at this point I'm smiling and excited. Not in Los Cabos. It was everything I could do to finish.

We often look at clichés as cheesy and of diminished value, but to be honest, there's a reason that things become cliché. They ring true. One of the quotes that you will often see on posters and motivation Twitter accounts is, "Your mind will quit 100 times before your body ever does." This is so completely true. 

I believe everyone needs to incorporate some circuits and lactate threshold work into their regular training plan. If you only ever jog, swim or cycle at a comfortable pace your body won't know how to react when things get tough. By taking your body to the limit on a regular basis you will train not only your body but your mind for the pain of racing. Also, pay attention to your body and how you react to different types of nutrition. The most important lesson I've learned about my body is that if I get sad it's because I'm low on sugar. Within a minute after taking on a gel or some gatorade I can feel my mood elevate and my pace pick back up. You can only find out how your body will react by testing it. This will take time and is not comfortable but the payoff is worth it.

Whatever your motivation, whatever your race, it is absolutely critical that your mind and body both be trained for endurance. Exercise both often and don't be afraid to fail in training. You need to push your limits to continue to grow and improve.

Happy training!

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