I had the privilege of sitting down with three amazing ultra-cyclists recently to talk about what keeps mad endurance athletes going when ninety percent of your head is saying STOP – quit, go home.
There were some common threads and some opposing thoughts but hopefully we have increased our pool of strategies to help keep us going for a bit longer. All these strategies can be applied to ANY event which is a challenge for you, be that a 25 km sportive or a 400m pool swim, it doesn’t matter. Everyone has their challenge level, anxieties and chimps in their heads. Although one is slightly less likely to hallucinate on shorter challenges I guess.
The company was – Jill Dawes, a client and experienced ultra rider going for GBDuro this year. That is an off road Land’s End to John O’Groats ride covering 1223 miles and 87600ft of ascent. You must finish in ten days.
Mike Pezet – Paris- Brest-Paris veteran, 1,200km with a 90 hours cut off.
Shaar Dixon – Audax rider, 1000km ride in 2021.
And myself with a slightly different take on the endurance experience with five ironman finishes.
In over an hour of discussion nobody once mentioned the pain. How did that happen? I think it’s just one of the multitudes of reasons to stop.
We all agreed we need a plan and a schedule which breaks the challenge down into manageable chunks. We then spend hours trying to work our timings out and inevitably failing but it occupies our brains. It also keeps us going. If the deal is we ride for three hours until a stop then that’s what we must do. If we must shuffle to the next feed station before a ten stride walk then that’s the deal.
Celebrate – the plan for an event has several aims. Normally one aim is to arrive at the start in a condition to take on the challenge. So, rather than bemoaning what you haven’t achieved celebrate what you have achieved, how far you have come and the obstacles you have overcome even to arrive. Whatever you are doing it is more than the person on the sofa and you are the richer for it.
Retain the sense of awe or wonderment – this was important to everyone. Focus on the amazing flowers, the moon, that fantastic dawn at 4am that only you are seeing. Mike loves the dusk when everyone else is going home, the wind has dropped, the world feels at peace and he gets to celebrate this. Jill finds this time really difficult, she wants to go home along with everyone else. And Shaar just wishes to be in the warm houses with cups of tea and funny wallpaper. We all have a sense of the privilege it is to be able to do our sport. Acknowledge that, celebrate it and keep a child-like sense of wonderment at the world.
Treats were also great. After three hours riding the treat is to stop for perhaps ten minutes. Not to rest but to find a loo, refill water bottles, find food. And start again on time! Don’t lose the focus. Treats also take the form of special food such as one whole bite of a Snickers. Offered as reward for perhaps getting up a big hill. Food in general on such rides is a necessity but not usually a pleasure and fuelling is one of the hardest disciplines to master in the ultra world.
Re-frame – harder and harder to do the tireder you get. If you are looking in enviously at people’s homes at dusk try to reframe to how lucky you are to be on this adventure and seeing things no one else does. If the shop has the wrong sandwich reframe to ‘at least it is open and has something.’
Hallucinate – some of us do, some of us don’t. Once you have worked out what is real and what is not its ok, you just talk to them.
Ask the question – ‘What can I do right now to help myself?’ Just asking that question turns a negative state of mind into an enquiring one and then into a positive position of self-help. This can easily be used on any challenge.
SMILE! – physically smiling causes physiological changes which cause you to feel happier. Try it.
Talk to yourself – both internally and externally. We all encourage ourselves to ‘Harden the f*** up’ and get on with it.’ Some of us do this out loud, finding that verbalising things makes it more concrete and real.
NEVER quit at night – When we discussed times we had stopped it was always at night and there was always a get out – a nearby lift or hotel. Also it was possible to see the chain of events which precipitated the final decision including the loss of focus or motivation in the preceding hours. this might not be an option for most athletes doing more rational challenges!
Just keep moving – this was powerful. It didn’t matter how, riding, walking, pushing, carrying. Just MOVE inch by inch.
Break it into Small chunks when the going is tough. ‘Just twiddle for ten minutes and see what happens.’ Then another ten, and the twiddle tells the head that it’s easy, providing reassurance. An Ironman marathon is NEVER marathon, its often four 10km jogs. That seems far more manageable.
Other people were a divided issue. I feel that I have to keep going for those who have supported and helped me, that acts as a motivator. I know it’s not true. People only really mind if you are safe and have a good time. For others outsiders were a distraction or a threat to personal safety, the journey was a very personal one. A whatsapp group with messages of support popping up on the handlebars was helpful for one person, someone else would hate the intrusion.
With all these suggestions it is horses for courses, you have to find what works for you. But for any event mental training is as important as the physical.
Inevitably this list will not be exhaustive but if one thing resonates for a reader then it’s been worth sharing. We all gained something from our meeting and are slightly better equipped to ‘Just keep moving’ ….to the end, wherever that may be.