Friday, July 20, 2012

Interview with a Champion


Last Monday, I had the opportunity to interview Craig Alexander, world champion triathlete.

We met at the Core Power headquarters in Chicago.  Core Power is a post-workout recovery drink.  It’s made from fresh, low-fat, lactose-free milk and real honey.  With an optimum protein to carbohydrate ratio along with a nutrient-rich profile, Core Power is a great way to replenish and recover after your workouts.  After drinking the Chocolate flavor, I have to admit it’s a tasty, light and convenient way to kick start recovery.  As a busy mom and business owner, anything quick to grab and effective is what I need!  I’m planning on popping a few of these in my car or gym bag to use in the recovery window.

The rules of engagement were simple: you can ask Craig anything.  While I didn’t get time to ask Craig his favorite IPA, if he liked vegetables or if he lurked on Slowtwitch, I did ask him a range of questions that I hoped would help me to better understand what it takes to be a world class athlete.  Mistakenly, I think a lot of people believe it has everything to do with what he does rather than who he is and how he does things.  While I agree that genetics, body and training are strong components for success, they can’t be everything.  There have to be other layers – layers we cannot readily see, that matter greatly – if not more.

A few years ago, I heard Craig speak at the 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater.  He covered his background in the sport and also a lot of questions about his family.  From that, I learned a lot about his start in triathlon and his rise from short to long course over the years.  I knew it took him 14 years to get “good” at the sport.  I also heard about his family, specifically the sacrifices his wife and family made trying to support his racing endeavors.  Since most competitive races are in the Northern hemisphere, his family needed to uproot from home Australia and live in the United States.  This meant for 6 months out of the year, his children were unable to see their cousins or grandparents.  Not only that but his wife had given up a career (I believe nursing) which she truly enjoyed.  Knowing all of this, I didn’t want to probe too much into topics like “balancing it all” or “how he got started” as I felt I already knew a good deal about it.

I met Craig on a Monday afternoon, he politely shook my hand with a “lovely to meet you.”  Just as in pictures, he is chiseled lean with sharp eyes, richly tanned skin and a poppy Australian accent.  Watching him talk was almost as interesting as listening to him talk.  Fiercely focused, he talked of his experience with such length and passion that you could tell his success in sport was not accidental – it was carefully crafted through intense focus, formulaic preparations and critical attention to detail.  He had clearly thought many, many times about why he was successful.  Or how to get more successful.  None of his success, the world championships, the year-long winning streaks, the course records – none of that whimsically happened.  In his words, he left no stone unturned, the proof was in his preparations.

My first question covered his performance at Racine 70.3.  Being up there as a spectator both in 2011 and in 2012, I watched Craig uncharacteristically struggle on course.  I asked him about the performance and, more importantly, how he moved past it.  Very honestly, he admitted that he felt flat and performed that way.  He shared that the week before the race was busy with a lot of obligations and at times what I think is more stressful than training stress – life stressors.  His family had moved to a new home in Boulder.  He had a series of speaking engagements around Chicago.  There was travel, sponsor obligations and photo shoots.  Training does not just happen in an isolated box, it happens in coordination with a series of life events and stressors.  The week caught up to him.  Yet he admitted that this was part of being a sponsored athlete.  You have to make time for these things but the lesson was that the time should never be before a key race (like a world championship). 

As for moving past a disappointing race, he very simply pointed out that it’s his job.  He has to race and getting over it is something he has to do.  He added that his last race, Eagleman, was an excellent race.  And, prior to Racine, he had won every race he entered for a year straight.  It’s hard to feel shaken by a bad race or need to get over it when you have such a history of success behind you.

He also talked about how every race is different.  Each time he won Kona it was a completely different experience.  The first time he said it was unbelievable.  The next time he felt awful.  This last time he said it was a mix of good and bad.  Even if you’ve won races before, he noted that it doesn’t mean the next race will feel easy.  Each time will be a challenge, something you have to work for and you have to be prepared for low moments and obstacles no matter what you’ve done before in the sport.  There are no guarantees that just because your last race felt easy that the next one will be the same way.

We briefly talked about heat management – and while he agrees that physiologically you must be acclimated to the heat, it’s just as important to mentally be prepared for it.  Go train in it and get used to the discomfort.

Next, I asked what he does after a race to evaluate his performance.  His answer was immediate: I go right back to my training log.  In fact, he said that morning he looked at his training log to see what might have gone wrong leading up to Racine.  The answer?  Nothing.  He had a solid block of training between Eagleman and Racine.  As for the bad race?  Life stress got in the way.  Time to move past it.

Craig talked about this training log which led to his thoughts on preparation.  It became clear that one of his largest sources of confidence is his preparation.  He trusts it and uses it to tell himself – whether before a race, during a rough moment during the race, that his preparation has prepared him for what he wants to accomplish out there.  In his words, you know what you’re going to do in racing because you’ve done it in training.

Talking more about confidence, I asked Craig to imagine himself at mile 8 of the run, and all of a sudden self-doubt creeps in.  What then?  Honestly, he admitted this happens often.  Even at Eagleman, a great race for him, self-doubt arrived half way through the run.  It’s a normal part of the athlete experience.  How does he overcome it?  Again, he goes back to his training.  I go back to my preparations for confidence.

Next I asked Craig to name one thing that he fears.  At first he said not performing up to his best.  I’m not afraid of winning or losing – that doesn’t matter.  He’s afraid of letting himself down.  Then, almost under his breath, he said, getting old.  Craig just turned 39.  In most sports, getting old is what happens when an athlete enters their twenties.  Last year, at 38, he became the oldest competitor to ever win the Ironman World Championship.  He’s redefining what athletes can expect from themselves as they age.    

I asked him how his training has changed between now and 10 years ago.  His answer?  Recovery.  Recovery is one of the most important keys to gaining fitness, yet most age groupers are too busy for it or don’t take it seriously enough – thinking more work will lead to more fitness.  Often that is not the case.  You’ve got to integrate that work to actually gain anything!  I posed this scenario: it’s after a workout, what does Craig Alexander do?

First, he hops into an ice bath.  The purpose?  To bring down his core temperature.  He said his wife gets him a few bags of ice each morning for the bath.  Then, he makes a recovery drink: 1 to 2 Core Power drinks along with a banana, blend it up and drink.  He talked about replenishing glycogen, getting in enough protein, massage, naps, Norma-Tec boots, proper nutrition – these are all ways he enhances his recovery.

When he skips or shorts the recovery, he says it shows up the next day.  In his words, the purpose of a training block is to have successful training day after a day.  A few bad workouts are ok but you want to build upon one success to another.  If you can recover better, you show up the next day better ready to perform in that workout and benefit from it.  What if every day you did one more thing to aid in your recovery?  What if you tossed that bottle of recovery drink in your bag before you left for the workout?  What if you spent 15 minutes every night rolling out your legs or stretching?  Can you get an extra 15 minutes of sleep?  Can you eat better? 

He also mentioned how as you get older your lungs and heart get stronger – the engine is strong but the chassis starts to break down.  He believes that you lose strength and speed as you get older – which means you have to work harder on them.  We didn’t cover the details of his strength training – but recently I listened to a Training Peaks podcast with Dave Scott where he talked about the importance of Craig’s strength training.

I asked Craig if I were to go to his house on any given night after the work is done, after the kids are in bed, where would I find him?  Sitting on his couch with his Norma-Tec boots on watching ESPN Sports Center.  Again, recovering!  In the off season, he might be out with friends, spending time with his wife and doing anything but triathlon.  But in season, it’s all about his triathlon success.  He is sharp, calculated, every move with a purpose and everything tied into his bigger purpose – achieving his goals.  For a 39-year old athlete who’s been in the sport for 20 years, recovery is the key to his consistency and performance.

I asked Craig the one piece of advice he would give himself as an athlete 10 years ago.  Be patient.  Be consistent.  Believe in yourself.  And accept help from others.  Training well is all about consistency, believing in your abilities and, as he added, understanding that while you may know your body (he talked about his ‘gut’, knowing himself), there are others out there who know more than you and it’s wise to listen to them.  Especially in triathlon with 3 sports to master!

Where does Craig see himself in 10 years?  With 1 or 2 more kids (he has 2) and still involved in the sport, though maybe not competing.  He feels he has a lot he could share with the sport – his knowledge of how to travel effectively as a pro, how to promote yourself, how to work with sponsors.  He’s definitely learned the business of being an athlete.  He mentioned that he’d do some biking, mountain biking or swimming yet would probably limit the running.  Why?  The joints take a pounding in all of this and they need a rest, especially as you get older

Then, I asked Craig the biggest sacrifice he’s made for his career.  He said he didn’t really have to make any sacrifices.  Every day he gets to go out and do what he loves to do.  Every day!  It’s his family, wife and children who make the sacrifices.  He has to take his family away from their cousins, grandparents and other family for 6 months out of the year.  His daughter is homeschooled, a tutor comes in and his wife ensures that the work gets done.  His wife also put her career on hold, a career she really enjoyed, so he could thrive at his career. 

I asked Craig if he has a pre-race ritual, something he has to do in the days leading up to the race or morning before.  He didn’t have a favorite workout or special breakfast, all of the years of traveling as athlete taught him to be very flexible with his foods before a race.  Instead he said the one thing he always does:  read through my training log.  For the past 10 years, he’s handwritten out notes for his training log every day.  I asked if I were to look through it, would the notes be more objective or subjective?  His answer: objective – numbers, paces, watts.  Though he admitted that recently someone advised him to add more subjective data to make it more memorable.  He said that his wife sees his log and asks how he can understand it.  To him, he can look at any page, any set of numbers and go immediately back to that training session.  His language, the numbers trigger the memory of the workout.  Before every race, he reads through his log for confidence – again, go back to your preparations

Is there a key session that Craig does that tells him he is ready for a big race?  He said yes.  He likes to do a 4 to 6 hour bike with some race pace efforts followed by mile repeats on an out and back dirt road where it’s hard and hot out there.  If he nails this session, he knows he is ready.  I asked if he ever pushed too hard before a race, it’s easy in our preparations to think more is better, cramming in last minute training.  He said a few years ago, 3 weeks before Kona, he came down from altitude, went to Kona and did a hard bike session.  When he got back, he fainted.  When he woke up, he drank some electrolytes then went for a run later that evening.  The next morning, he went for his long run.  Looking back, he says, it was stupid.  It was 3 weeks out from the world championship and he probably should have called it a day.  But it became clear to me that Craig Alexander rarely calls it a day.  He gets confidence from pushing through situations like that, doing as he says sometimes in endurance sport you have to do things that are a little crazy.  As long as you don’t crazy workouts too often, they are valuable in your preparation.

In my last question, I asked Craig what he feels is his weakness.  He got quiet then said chocolate, ice cream, which he felt were important indulgences.  Then, he more seriously said, being obsessive compulsive.  Not just about sport but spilling over into other areas of life.  Sometimes people around him don’t think this is a good thing.  But he admitted that to be a successful athlete you have to be a little obsessive compulsive about the details.  It’s all of those little things that add up to the big successes out there. 

He repeated the question again and I added – what would your competition say is your biggest weakness?  My competition knows nothing about me.  We both laughed.  I said that his competition would probably say his weakness was the bike, right?  He leaned forward.  You could tell this was a topic he had thought extensively about.  He suggested the idea that he was weak on the bike was a PR campaign from “another competitor” who seemed to use the media to recruit other athletes to help him on the course.  Craig explained if he was so weak on the bike why was he winning?  He also said, simply, to run well off the bike you have to bike well.  I run well off the bike, in other words, he’s a good cyclistCraig knew that in Kona last year he would have to change his strategy.  He didn’t necessarily improve his bike, he just rode more aggressively.  He also doesn’t feel he has a weakness in sport: I’ve always thought of myself as strong in all three areas.  If you’re going to be a world champion, you simply cannot have any chinks in your mental armor.  You’ve got to think you’re the best out there. 

(if you’re wondering what other changes he made to his bike or training prior to Kona 2011, the IMTalk podcast recently interviewed Craig’s advisor, Mat Steinmetz, where he reveals a lot of that information)

I sensed we had been talking for nearly 30 minutes.  When I asked Craig how much time we had left, he said take as much time as you’d like.  There was so much more I wanted to know.  Who he admires most in sport.  How he wants to be remembered.  His most proud accomplishment.  We were just at the point of conversation where it was starting to feel comfortable.  Then, the moderator came in to end our conversation.  He had to prepare for another interview with a local newspaper.  While there were a lot of things I didn’t get to learn about Craig, I’m hoping his book, As The Crow Flies, will provide more insight (available for pre-order today). 

Reading back through this, I feel I’ve disappointed the reader.  You see, Craig Alexander doesn’t have any secrets.  No top secret workouts, no magic recipes.  In many ways, his “secret” is rather boring: 20 years of consistency.  And while I won’t argue that his genetics play a role in his success at the same time, if you did something consistency, obsessively, to be the best you could be for 20 years straight – how good would you get at it?  His secret, is day after day consistency layered with serious recovery and a lifestyle that is designed around being a world champion triathlete.  Being the best is his job.  The job description?  Obsessive attention to detail, extreme passion for the sport, an unwavering belief in yourself. 

As I walked back to my car, I thought about what I never got to tell Craig: what I admired most about him - his longevity and quiet confidence.  Longevity is something few athletes can master – the art of lasting a really long time.  And not just lasting but getting better.  How he can keep coming back year after year to top himself, which any successful athlete knows, is really what athletic excellence is all about – being better than yourself, raising your own bar year after year  He exemplifies what each of us, in our late thirties, early forties, wants to know – how soon until age catches us.  He proves to us that you can use wisdom, experience, patience and tact to indeed get faster.  And to me, Craig embodies what few athletes have but what almost will always make a successful athlete – quiet confidence.  Quiet confidence is not brash, boastful or extrinsically motivated.  It is not doubtful or insecure.  Underneath that quiet confidence is layers of work, pages in a training log, days to weeks to years of preparations.  There is nothing magical about his confidence.  It’s simply confidence in his preparation and when the opportunity arrives he lets that confidence carry him through, year after year.

Thank you so much to Core Power for inviting me to speak with Craig! 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Road Trip




This weekend, we headed up to the Twin Cities for the Lifetime Fitness Triathlon.

Over the past ten years, we've been up to the Twin Cities many times - several of Chris' friends live up there. Back when we were young and carefree (read: childless), we'd head up for a weekend of drinking and riding bikes.  Some of my finer moments in Minnesota included drinking beer out of a glass boot and taking a late night trip to Sex World.  Things like this can happen when you drink beer out a glass boot.

Don’t do it.

It’s been a long time since Chris and I have done a road trip.  St. Paul is about 400 miles northwest of our home.  It’s a fantastically rolling, lush and scenic drive.  The hills of Dane County, the bluffs as you get west of Tomah.  I spent most of the drive refusing to drive, instead doing important things with my phone, like naming all of our future children, reading Chris useless geographical information about the surrounding area and then incessantly pressing refresh for about 45 minutes as we entered a no service zone.

We arrived early enough on Friday to do a short swim in the lake.  The water temperature was a perfect 81 degrees and it tasted like triathlon – the earthy green taste of Midwest lakes in summer where you can barely see your hand in front of you.  After the swim we attempted to drive the course to refresh our memory.  It took Chris using an actual map, a GPS, written directions and several miles of trial and error to finally figure out what might have been 12 miles of the course.  I believe this is Minnesota’s trick to keep everyone else out of their state.  They make their roadways (and especially highways) so complicated to navigate as if to say if you can figure this out, you can stay, if not, then get the fuck out of here.  Hey, we heard you, LOUD AND CLEAR: we gave up around Minnehaha Parkway and went to eat instead.

Race morning came early – 4:30 am – and I took my first sip of coffee in over 5 days.  Somewhere in late May I got back on the coffee wagon.  This might have something to do with living within a ½ mile walk of Caribou or having a child rapidly approaching 2 years old.  Quickly, I was full on addicted.  Every morning I needed my dark roast.  At first, for the fun of it.  Then, for the taste.  Next, to get my personality.  And last, to stave off headaches.  Breaking the habit was painful.  My body completely revolted on Monday, I felt like I was tapering for Ironman.  I had headaches for three days before I finally felt human on Thursday.  And did I feel ANY boost from caffeine on race morning?

None.

So that was worth it.

My last trip to Lifetimes Fitness was back in 2005 when I competed in the age group category.  Back then we went up there with Liz Attig and Eric Ott, all had great races, got drunk, rode the rides at the Mall of America then went on a cookie spree with the short carts around Lund’s. 

Yes, it is becoming clear to me that I have a drinking problem only in the state of Minnesota.  

This year, I wanted to compete in the elite amateur category.  I knew this category would draw top competition from around the Midwest and this year didn’t disappoint.  There were some fast women on board.  

Race morning always moves by quickly by the time you park, walk to transition, set up transition.  My swim warm up was perfect – 20 minutes with excellent feel for the water.  Before I knew it, I was in a corral on the beach waiting to start.  At the start line, I lined up left, outside.  In short course racing, position is everything.  I knew I needed to be up front and ready to bolt.  The gun went off, I ran quick and hard into the water then got to swimming.  I fought a few strokes with another girl then pulled ahead.  A lead group got was in front of me.  While I couldn’t bridge to them, I kept them within sight.  After 500 yards, a woman came up alongside my left.  It was the perfect combination of being in the right place at the right time. She was moving faster than me so I hopped right on her feet.  I had done this so many times at the quarry – on someone’s feet, in my speedsuit, in open water – that it felt just like training.  I knew what I had to do and did it because I’ve done it before!  I started to lose her on the last leg of the swim but I could see her just ahead that it motivated me to keep pushing the pace.

On to the bike, an athlete’s husband gave me splits about where I was in relation to the other girls.  This information was very helpful!  I was sitting in about 7th place.  My legs immediately felt wretched.  I anticipated this since we could not use wetsuits.  You have to kick more to keep your body position up and it shows on the bike.  I took 5-8 minutes to settle into the pace and then held my range of watts.  I set a different range than the last race because of the course.  The LTF bike course is full of rough pavement, twists, curves, sharp turns, bridges and false flats.  There is absolutely no rhythm on this course.  Knowing that, I figured the course itself would eat up about 10 watts so I set my range a little lower than last time. 

The first half of the ride I was mostly alone, I quickly passed a few women and found myself then being passed by a lot of the younger men in the elite amateur male category who started in front of us.  Scary that I outswam them!  My watts were good, my legs were coming back.  We made a loop around the first lake and then headed back to make the loop around Lake Harriet at the halfway point.  Around the lake the roads are narrow and curvy, a complete rhythm breaker where it's hard to maintain speed.

Then, it's mostly downhill back to Lake Nokomis.  There were still so many twists and turns, it was hard to keep focus out there.  I brought it back to the process – hold watts, corner well, stay aero.  Just bring yourself back to it.  The bike is about a mile long so I didn’t worry about having a slightly slower time than usual. 

The run is two loops around the lake, flat and fast.  It was warm and humid but the course is quite shaded.  My plan was to run a fast 4 miles and then hang on with what I had left.  In the last race, I held back too much in the beginning.  This time I was going after it. 

At first, my legs felt horrible, I was nauseous and wasn’t in the mood to run after the 6 women ahead of me.  Immediately a woman flew by me with insanely fast turnover.  Make that 7 women ahead of me.  Do I really want to be doing this?  It’s hot.  I’m uncomfortable.  Wah wah wah wah wah.

It’s funny all of the chatter than can take place in your head by the first mile of the race.  Usually in a half Ironman it’s the first 6 miles that painfully hurt more in your head than legs.  Olympic distance, all of those crazy I want to stop thoughts get crammed into the first mile – hard.  I hit mile 1 and I still had the low feeling.  But I knew in low moments of a race, we’re simply not thinking clearly.  It’s in these moments when most age groupers give up or change their course.  The only thing you should do in a low moment is stay the pathI told myself, stay the path, there are a few women up there that you can see and they are suffering.  Keep going after themYou’re faster and tougher than them.    

It worked.  By mile 2 I had found my rhythm at a 6:40something pace.  It wasn’t fast but compared to the other women, it was fast today.  I made up a 45 second deficit in under 1 mile on one of the women.  I moved ahead of 7th.  And then set my eyes on 6th.  Caught her a bit later.  At this point, I had made it through the first loop.  I had found my rhythm.  My mind had also cleared – what was I thinking about?  Nothing.  Occasionally about my turnover or arm swing but otherwise, trust your rhythm and keep running.

As I crossed the finish line, I heard the familiar voice of Jerry MacNeil.  Jerry has been around Midwest triathlon forever – he knows everything about everyone through years of race announcing and watching results. 

Hello Liz Waterstraat.

I waved, I’m coming across the line, I’m going hard, this felt awkward.

It’s good to see you back.  Your stomach is looking flat after having all those babies.

(is there a rumor going around that I gave birth to a dozen children in the past 2 years?)

I finished 5th overall elite amateur.  It was a decent result.  My desired outcome was top 3, acceptable was top 5.  I know I still have more work to be done and I’m going to do it.  What I love most about the short racing?  I get to race again in 3 weeks. 

I know our sport is infatuated with long course racing – half and full Ironmans.  But I’ll be honest with you – sprint and Olympic distance races may not be sexy but they are so challenging in a different way.  The girls who are doing these fast and well have something unique in their mindset and physiology.  They go to redline, from the gun, for over 2 hours and stay there.  They don’t just know how to suffer but they look forward to it.  They don’t wait – they go for it.  Totally different than the patience, wisdom, and maturity you need to excel at long course races.  Short course is really uncomfortable.  The more comfortable you are, the more you realize you’re not going hard enough.  I spent every mile of that run uncomfortable yesterday.

We wrapped up our trip quickly and drove back home.  Chris, being hopelessly trusting of the GPS, believed it when it misrouted us towards Rochester, through western Wisconsin on to one of the most beautiful routes I’ve ever driven.  As we took this – uh – 90 mile highway detour, he threatened to throw the GPS out the window.  Having once seen him throw an entire road atlas out the window (we started triathlon so long ago that back then – we actually used REAL MAPS!), I begged him to spare the GPS.  The road traveled along the shore of a 40-mile lake off of the Mississippi River, Lake Pepin (now threatened by farm run off – this is what happens when you read useless geographical information to your husband for 90 miles), winding through the small lakeside towns, long hills and bluffs.  For as inconvenient as the route was, it was exactly the quiet you need after a race for reflection. 

After every race I sit down and think about what worked, what didn’t work, what needs work.  I take notes.  I keep them in a book.  I look at them before every race so I don’t make the same mistakes twice.  I’ve been doing this for a long time and what I’m enjoying most about this year is that I keep learning something new about racing – makes me a better athlete, a better coach, makes me always excited for the next time. 


Shameless sponsor plug: thank you to TriSports.com for supporting me in all of my racing endeavors! 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Mental Game


The hardest part of my job isn’t getting athletes fit.  The challenge of the coach is to get athletes to believe in themselves to execute that fitness on race day.

For most of us, we are about as good as we make up our minds to be.

"It's your thinking that decides whether you're going to succeed or fail."
-Henry Ford

Most of our performance, beyond basic fitness, is entirely within our control.  Execution of a sound fuel plan is entirely within our control.  Adapting to and overcoming obstacles or challenges, again, within our reach.  Accepting weather conditions, managing race day anxiety, dealing with other competitors – all things that we can decide to do – with confidence!   


"There can be no great courage where there is no confidence or assurance, and half the battle is in the conviction that we can do what we undertake."
-Orison Swett Marden

How do you actually do these things, with confidence, when pressure is high and thoughts are screaming otherwise?  It’s all part of the mental game.  Like any game, the mental game can be lost or won.  I hear this a lot – I need to improve my mental game.  Many athletes have misconceptions about how to improve their mental game.  Let’s start with things that do not improve your mental game:

(1)  Suffering through hard workouts designed above your current fitness level.  Suffering does not make you mentally tough, it usually just makes you tired.

(2)  Relentlessly positive thinking.  Forcing yourself to change your current thought patterns creates unnecessary “chatter” in your head & charges you up to think that something is wrong with you & must be fixed (which then lowers confidence)

(3)  Deciding on race day to be mentally tough.  Practice makes perfect.  Deciding to be mentally tough on race day is like deciding you’re going to hold 22 mph when you’ve been training at 17.  To get there, you gotta go there.

(4)  Thinking you have to be the fastest, most “talented” athlete with genetic gifts & high V02 max to master the mental game.  Mental toughness (and confidence) is accessible to any athlete willing to practice & it’s worth free speed, no matter what your speed.

How does one therefore improve their mental game? 

Confidence.  Staying the path.  Going there in practice to get there when it matters most – in racing.

Want to be on top of your mental game?  Be confident.  Funny thing about confidence is that it’s a lifelong process of finding, accepting and being yourself.  Often you have to dig a little deeper to figure out why you are not confident.  I see this with a lot of athletes – they are highly successful in their “real” life.  Yet put them into the sporting field, build the pressure and they crumble when confidence is needed the most.  Why?  I think it’s the perfect storm of mental pressure and physical fatigue. 

Pressure.   The irony is that most of us do this for fun, or because we are passionate about it – the fitness, the challenge, the health, etc.  There is no “real” pressure other than the pressure we place on ourselves.  We place a lot of pressure on ourselves because we are competitive, because we are (mostly) Type-A perfectionists. There is internal pressure from ourselves and mostly what I find is perceived external pressure for outside sources; social media, what others think about us, sponsors, etc.  When you let go of the idea of pressure you realize that you are free.  When you are free, you can act automatically.  Your actions are made with confidence rather than playing it safe through fear of consequences (what you might feel, what others think of you).  All of a sudden everything you’ve done in training can be done in racing because there are no forces (pressures) working against you.

“Pressure is nothing more than the shadow of great opportunity.
-Michael Johnson

Physical fatigue, unlike pressure, is very real.  It is what happens when you push against that edge of your endurance, your threshold – wherever you are going in a race.  There is no training that prepares you for the feeling in the last 10K of an Ironman marathon.  Better yet, the last 400 meters of a 1 mile all out race.  What you do in those moments is often much more what you decide to do versus what you are prepared to do.  I’ve never run 22 miles in training.  I’ve never walked the last 4 miles of a marathon.  Make no mistake, how I felt in those last 4 miles was one of the most physically painful experiences of my life.  Yes, fatigue is often due to carbohydrate depletion or dehydration.  But beyond that, like most things in sport, it’s a mindset.  You make choices out there.  The only way I was able to make the choice to keep running was from confidence.  Fearlessness for going after it, trusting that whatever is coming my way, I can handle it.

“Even the strongest have their moments of fatigue.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

Improving your mental game has little to do with thinking positive.  Or turning every negative thought around.  The truth is, you cannot change your thoughts.  Your thoughts pop into your head for a variety of reasons – some have merit, others are totally random, unrelated to anything real.  You cannot make yourself think good things.  You can say good things to yourself but you can’t change your thoughts.   Often the more you try to tell yourself to think positive, the more you fight yourself and create the opposite reaction of what you are seeking.  You charge up your thinking and your ‘self’ starts to think – what’s wrong with me?  Why can’t I think positive?  All of a sudden something small that you were trying positively think your way out of gets blown up into something big, a source of self failure or fear.  You over-react – actually, you react and take action at a time when you should have done nothing. 

Why? 

Let’s say you’re not enjoying a 20 mph headwind.  Nothing you “think” will change the wind.  And let’s be honest - riding into the wind is not fun!  It’s ok to realistically recognize that.  The more you try to convince yourself that riding into the wind is fun, the more your smart little self starts to think – why can’t I just think that it’s fun?  I’m not ok.  I’m weak, I’m failing, if I can’t handle the wind, how am I going to handle the run?!?  Instead, let yourself think the wind isn’t fun.  Then, keep riding.  Don’t try to change that thought or overthink it.  At some point you will get off the bike; the time will pass and you will be out of the wind. 


"Negativity is a fundamental and necessary part of the human experience.  Those who understand the arbitrary and meaningless nature of thought would never try to change or fix their thinking.  If you combat wayward thoughts by trying to override them with positive ones, you will only energize and prolong the negativity."
-Garret Kramer

Along these same lines, many times, success in a race is just staying the path out there.   

Staying the path.  When you least want to, is when you most need to.  Often the difference between the mentally tough and those that give up is not that the mentally tough don’t feel pain, are stronger, are faster, are genetically more gifted – it’s just that they stay in the game at a time when everyone else is giving up.  This is especially true in long course racing.  We all know the person who DNF’ed at mile 13 of the marathon.  Half way there!  When you most want to give up is when you need to hang on the hardest – your breakthrough is probably right into the next mile!  Give yourself a chance.  Have the confidence to get yourself through those low moments – remember, in those moments, if you’re thinking negative thoughts, let them be!  Don’t act upon them.  Keep moving forward. 


"You have to have confidence in your ability, and then be tough enough to follow through."
-Rosalynn Carter

Is mental toughness never giving up?  There is great risk is never giving up.  It means you’re going to go through some very low moments.  When you are not confident, there is much fear about these moments.  You have to believe that you have the skills to work through them.  How do you develop those skills?  By letting yourself go there!  Put yourself there in training.  Most athletes are very intelligent adults. We are very efficient, self-protecting machines.  We play it safe.  In life and sport!  There’s less to lose when you play it safe.  You can comfortably coast along without much struggle.  But in doing so you also accept a half assed version of yourself.  The difference between that person who started their own business, decided to leave a job to travel the world, became a world champion is because they were ready to take a bigger risk.  And that’s how to master the mental game.  You have to be willing to risk something (pain, failure, maybe even risk yourself) to learn more about yourself.  

“If you never struggle with confidence, you obviously are not stretching yourself far enough.  You are not pressing to the edge of your abilities.  In other words, the only way to never struggle with confidence is to play it safe.  Play it known.  Play it in a way that you achieve stability, but lose opportunity.”
-Timothy Ursiny

You can easily do this in training.  This doesn’t mean suffering through ridiculously hard workouts that are designed far beyond your fitness level.  This means looking for any opportunity in training to improve your mental game – doing your long ride solo versus riding with a group, setting a goal for your bike test, hitting your intervals in the heat no matter what your head says, moving up a lane at masters to challenge yourself.  When you have successes or failures in these situations, you learn something about yourself.  Most of us resist opportunities to learn something about ourselves because it involves risk of failure and failure to receive approval from those external pressures mentioned above (other people, social media, etc).  To get there, you gotta go there, no matter what the “consequence.”

“Total self-confidence is built through positive expectations.  You can build positive expectations by knowing that you have the power within to overcome any obstacle that lies ahead.  So many people have magnetic attraction to the past.  They save momentos, clippings, old letters.  There is nothing wrong with this, but if you want to succeed, your mind must focus on where you are going, not on where you have been.  Instead of saving momentos, clippings, old letters from the past, it would be more productive to make a scrapbook with pictures of where you want to go and what you want to be in the future.”
-Robert Anthony

How important is the mental game?  Like I said, most of us are about as good as we make up our minds to be.  The more experienced and “faster” the athlete, the more I see this.  There’s very little difference in the fitness of top age groupers.  They’re all working hard. They’re all able to swim around x:xx pace, ride at x watts/kg and run around x:xx miles.  Maybe a few variations.  They’ve usually got the details (sleep, diet, recovery) buttoned down.  So what makes one athlete better than the other?  It’s usually the space between their two ears.  Actually, on race day, finding a way to keep that space as quiet and empty as possible.  Allowing themselves to act from confidence, to act automatically, to let their skills and fitness just….flow. 

While I can’t promise you that by upping your mental game you’ll raise your threshold by xx watts, you will raise your confidence.  How much is that worth?


"With confidence you have won even before you have started."
-Marcus Garvey


Enough said.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Excessive Heat Warning

The other day, all but 11 states registered in with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees.

Illinois being one of them.

For the record, and we’ve broken a lot of records recently, it has been over 90 degrees for the past 24 days.  That’s over 3 weeks

During one of those days, I left my iPhone in the car.  About an hour later, upon realizing my lifeline was trapped, alone, in a hot car, windows up, I went to rescue it.   That’s when I saw this:

EXCESSIVE HEAT WARNING

And something to the effect that it must be cooled down before you can use it again.

If only I had such a warning. 

Heat or not, training moves forward.  Three weeks of trying to get up early or go out late or training indoors.  I was out running, as the temperature climbed through the 90s, when I thought to myself how frustrating it was to have all of this fitness but not be able to really use it.  When it’s so hot that you have to stop under a tree to gather your thoughts, you’re not really performing up to your fitness potential out there – you’re surviving.  But then I thought about my next race, historically around 95 degrees or higher, and how if we’re going to race in it, we have to train in it.  Fitness doesn’t matter so much as getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and staying mentally tough out there. 

Last week, I did my first track workout in over 3 years.  Track starts somewhere around 6 pm, when it happened to be 92 degrees outside.  It was one of those rare workouts in the heat where I had no idea how I pulled out the times I did.  Somewhere after 2 x 800s and a 400, the man who had been chasing me said you love the heat, don’t you.  I do not.  In fact, anything above 90 degrees is my zone of intolerance.  But since we race in the summer, you have to learn to tolerate the heat.  Do everything possible to stay cool before, during and after the workout.  Say a prayer.  And then just go for it.  Miraculously, I pulled out one of the fastest 800s I’d seen in a long time.

Two days later, weather still hot, I took my ride to the trainer in the chilling 67 degrees of my basement.  Sometimes it pays to value quality over suffering.  Sometimes you need the suffering to acclimate yourself to the discomfort of race day.  Go too much in one direction and you become soft.  Too much in the other and you become spent and tired.  In extremes like this you’ve got to do a little of both and focus even harder on recovery.   

The weekend brought my long run.  Weekends are hard.  Only one person can get up early to workout while the other stays with Max.  I pulled the unlucky card – my long run started at 1 pm.  Another day of 90 degrees.  A freak storm left the first part of my run overcast and cool.  And – no kidding – the moment I turned around, the sun came out blazing just in time for my intervals.  I ignored the Garmin and went off feel.  Yes it was hot.  Yes it was uncomfortable.  But the hardest part was just managing my head and all of the excuses that could have kept me from trying.  I took it one interval at a time and nailed each one.  Then I stood under a tree for 30 seconds to collect myself.  

Tuesday was near 100 degrees.  Around 12 noon I went out for an easy 30 minute run.  Easy became hard as the last 15 minutes felt like I crawled under a thick blanket of heat that I couldn’t find my way out of.  Kind of like if you’ve thrown a blanket over your dog’s head and watched them run in a circle until finally they find their way out (this gets exponentially funnier with every glass of wine).  That was me, under the blanket, running.  When I got back home, I found Amanda, comfortably laying on the couch, when I told her to get outside and run for mental toughness training.  At that moment, the “train with me for a few days” camp was starting to feel more like fat camp.  But she grabbed her Fuel Belt and did it.

Wednesday I had a track workout on schedule.  I knew the track group wasn’t meeting due to the holiday so I suggested doing a 5K.  Kurt agreed and I found myself up at 5:30 am eating my pre-race oatmeal.  At 5:30 am, it was 77 degrees with a dewpoint of 73.  Damp.  The irony of the warm up is that I was completely warmed up by the time I walked to pick up my race bag.  Nevermind the 20 minutes with strides!  For the race, my plan was to go as hard as I could go for as long as I could go.  It wasn’t a brilliant plan but neither was running a 5K in this weather.  But that’s what makes for great training experiences – you test your limits, try some new things, take a risk without caring about the consequence. 

I didn’t wear a Garmin, nor a watch.  Freedom. Some call it running naked.  I’ve never run naked but I’ve seen it done enough times on Ragbrai that I know for a fact it’s a good thing we all wear clothes when running. 

I lined up in the front row with what had to be over a dozen kids, my favorite being the one right behind me. 

We’re in for the hottest Fourth of July in a century.

As I stand there dripping sweat. 

Yup, and one day I’m going to be able to tell my kids that I ran on the hottest day in a century. 

Standing there – dripping.

In 100 years, it hasn’t been this hot.

I have never wanted to turn around and put a race flat into someone’s mouth so badly.

The gun went off and true to my plan I went as hard as I could.  I hit mile 1 at 5:57, mile 2 at 6:08 and mile 3 was either long or I, as I said to Amanda, heard that people can blow up but didn’t think it could happen to me.  Mile 3 might have been around 7:00 - which doesn’t seem right or, as Chris said, it sounds like your wheels didn’t just come off but you tripped right over them.  This very well might have happened but without the Garmin, I will never know and it sounds much more self-saving to say “the course was long” so I’m going with it.  I ended up 2nd overall, finished up with a cool down – at that point, insult to my body, because the cool down was only making me hotter.

I headed home and the only thing that sounded good to me was coffee.  I have trouble eating when it’s this hot out.  The heat makes me wish there was human kibble – someone suggested there is, it’s called cereal.  So I’ve been eating a lot of Cheerio’s.  At the coffee shop, I did a very un-Liz like thing.  I ordered coffee, iced.  Yes, that’s what happens when you race a 5K on the hottest Fourth of July of the century. 

Around 11 am, Amanda and I headed out for a ride.  This may have been the dumbest thing I’ve ever done on a bike.  Next to Ragbrai.  At this point, it was 99 degrees.  Chris was up at 4:30 am doing this ride, I did the race then we had no other choice but to go then.  Not exactly ideal riding weather but how hard could it be to ride through it for 90 minutes?  I ask you – how hard?

(foreshadowing, if my Garmin was my iPhone it would have flashed EXCESSIVE HEAT WARNING before I even rolled my bike out of the garage)

The first 54 minutes were ok.  We rode to see the Alpaca Farm.  We decide that we are hot but at least we are not Alpacas.  Maybe it was stopping in the sun for a few minutes but right then something very bad happened.  I got excessively hot – as in, I might be sick kind of hot.  Now I’ve been through a lot of hot things: Kona, 3 times, Ragbrai, 5 times, pregnancy inJuly, at 9 months, standing within 10 feet of George Hincapie while getting his autograph (Liz, your smockin!) but this was possibly the hottest I have ever been.  All I could think about was getting off of my bike and finding water. 

About 20 minutes later, we find a park.  There has to be water there, yes, at a park in the middle of nowhere!  Sadly there was no water.  Just a picnic shelter under which I had to stop, and – in my words to Amanda –gather myself.  So what that means is I poured (HER) water on my head and unzipped my jersey to leave it flapping for the rest of the ride, forgoing any aerodynamics properties of my bike – and being damn ok with that.

I check the temperature on my Garmin which reads 106.9 and then realize that this is not just excessive heat but it is also my melting point.  The only thing that makes me want to continue riding is knowing a park, in about 20 minutes, indeed has a water spigot.  Nevermind that one time a few years ago, in a similar situation, I rode to that spigot, found it was off and cried.  Until we get there, I talk about the water spigot. I imagine the water spigot.  As Amanda pulls away from me on the road near the park I scream from behind her: THIS IS THE ROAD WITH THE WATER SPIGOT fearful that she might ride right by it.    

Finally, at the park, with the spigot, my mouth grows dry as I read a sign that says: Non-potable water.

I want to cry.

You could probably drink it and you wouldn’t die (that was Amanda talking)

Thank god for friends looking out for me.  I didn’t drink it.  Instead put my entire head under it.  Filled my water bottle with it.  Poured that entire water bottle all over me.  And then found renewed spirit in my wet shorts. 

About 10 minutes from the car, alongside the road there is a water park with giant slides and what looks like an oasis of icy cold water that I need to be in RIGHT NOW.  It’s like a race where they make you run around a lake on a hot day and all you can think about is jumping into that lake.  I needed to jump into that pool.  When we get back to the car I told Amanda we were going to the water park.  It was not a choice. 

Full bike kit, we enter the park.  First things first, we must have SpongeBob popsicles.  In what felt like a another Ragbrai moment, we found the only shade up against the side of the building, sat with our water bottles, sunscreen and popsicles proclaiming it to be the best ice cream ever.  The only way it could have gotten any better if it was flavored like beer.  Then, we grabbed two tubes and headed to the lazy river.  We learned that a lazy river on a 100+ degree day is like the Eisenhower during rush hour traffic.  You don’t move very fast.  You are exposed up close and personal to what can only be described as an overfed and over-tatooed slice of America.  Even if we wanted to move faster we were so trapped by the slow, lazy speed of the river that we had no choice but to accept it and enjoy. 

For two hours I forgot I was hot (actually, I got a chill and felt cold), forgot I had a job to do, forgot I was a mother, forgot I was anything but right there, right at that moment in the lazy river.  It was one of the most freeing things I have felt in a long time. It was summer in all of its glory – better yet, Fourth of July glory – true freedom with no responsibilities, no worries, nothing but me floating in a tube.  I need more moments like this and less moments folding towels or cleaning up the kitchen.  It was perfect timing on summer’s part – to get me to slow down and simply enjoy myself.

Finally it was time to return to reality.  We put our tubes down.  And headed home.  The only thing worse than leaving a soiled diaper in a car on a 100+ degree day would be leaving not one but two pairs of bike shoes.  The car smelled special.  We drove home, tired, ridiculously dehydrated, a little sunburned.  Yet to me it was the perfect day.  

For as much as I don’t enjoy temperatures over 90, there’s a lot to be learned in the extremes.  You learn a little more about your strengths (running well with a bunch of men chasing you on a track on a hot night), your weaknesses (pacing in a 5K, obviously), your successes (nailing the long run) and your failures (the 90 minute ride that may have taken 2 hours because I needed to take a cold bath under a spigot).   

And you learn that sometimes in the heat it’s best to slow down, grab a tube, float and enjoy yourself. 

Stay cool, friends!